By Christine Beerli and Sundeep Waslekar

Since the UN Security Council held a historic session on water, peace and security on 22 November 2016, there has been growing appreciation of the need to protect water infrastructure in crisis situations and a need for international cooperation in order to evolve innovative and cooperative approaches in this regard. In February this year, the Security Council Resolution 2341 on the protection of critical infrastructure from terrorist attacks included water systems and hydro-electricity plants. In September, the report of the Global High Level Panel on Water and Peace, convened by 15 countries, presented comprehensive recommendations to protect water installations in conflict zones.

The international community is concerned as non-state armed actors have been competing for controlling dams in Iraq and Syria in the last few years. Once seized, the dams on Euphrates have been used as weapons of war to regulate water flows to the downstream population, conceal high value prisoners, sell electricity in the black market and use the funds to purchase weapons. Water infrastructure in Gaza, Yemen and Ukraine has been damaged in violent conflicts. Analysts fear that these risks may spread to parts of Asia and Africa in future.

International Committee for the Red Cross has been trying to protect vulnerable communities in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Gaza, Ukraine and other parts of the world from threats to water resources. It has helped to repair and rehabilitate water supply systems by providing spare parts and training local staff. It has been transporting water by trucks to meet urgent needs in the camps of refugees and internally displaced persons. It has also been engaged in improving urban water infrastructure to ensure long term sustainability.

The emergency response provided by the ICRC over the years is underpinned by a strong belief in international humanitarian law which places various obligations on parties to conflict to protect water installations. International humanitarian law provides special protection for objects indispensable for the survival of the civilian population, like drinking-water installations, irrigation works and dams. International humanitarian law also provides general protection against attacks on civilian targets, including populations. Parties to conflict must take precautions and refrain from actions likely to cause excessive incidental damage. Nevertheless, international humanitarian law is violated with the indiscriminate use of deadly weapons and scant regard for common people. Therefore, it needs to be reinforced with long term and short term measures.

One way to support international humanitarian law is to promote collective water security. It requires active cooperation between riparian countries sharing water resources. Water Cooperation Quotient, constructed by the Strategic Foresight Group and soon to be launched by the InterAction Council, a group of 50 former Heads of Government, reveals that any two countries engaged in active water cooperation do not go to war for any reason, whether related to water or otherwise. As the Water Cooperation Quotient is derived from the analysis of all 286 shared river basins in the world, it demonstrates strong correlation between trans-boundary cooperation and reduced risk of war.

The strengthening of international humanitarian law and trans-boundary water cooperation requires practical and collaborative measures. These include support to international humanitarian organisations to facilitate dialogue between warring parties to provide safe passage for rehabilitating water infrastructure and meeting urgent needs of displaced population. It is also necessary to facilitate partnerships between local authorities, service providers and humanitarian agencies to build the resilience of water, electricity and health infrastructure, with contingency plans, in regions facing protracted conflicts.

The UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations can train cadres of water engineers capable of functioning in war zones. Peacekeeping forces are well–placed to play an active role in ensuring water rehabilitation functions. Especially those from troop contributing countries with trained corps of engineers in their armies could greatly contribute to this process.

The UN Security Council can explore water-based ceasefires between warring parties, opening space for humanitarian organisations and peace-keeping forces to repair water systems while creating opportunities for diplomats to negotiate compromise. Thus, water-based ceasefires can simultaneously promote water security and peace.

The solutions enumerated above including safe passage and ceasefires for repairing water infrastructure, improving resilience in the urban water systems, and promoting active cooperation between countries that share water resources require diplomatic and financial investments. It is necessary to develop innovative instruments of preferential and concessional finance for building cooperative water security through jointly managed dams, hydro-electric plants, pipelines, reservoirs, among other facilities by neighbouring countries.

Above all, ensuring long term water security requires Blue Peace approach. It is to transform water from a source of crisis and conflicts into an instrument of peace and cooperation. Water is not merely about development. It is the cornerstone of global security in the 21st century.

Christine Beerli is Vice President of the International Committee of the Red Cross. Sundeep Waslekar is President of the Strategic Foresight Group, an international think tank.