The consequences of the Israeli announcement on Oct. 9 of a “complete siege” on Gaza are severe, and will endure. The decision to deny the entry of electricity and fuel has since been accompanied by physical damage to water infrastructure so extensive that misery is guaranteed, and opportunities to address the issues that lie behind the conflict are dashed. If the territorial conflict is ever to be resolved, the rules of international law that guide armed conflict to protect civilians must be followed.
The history of abuse of water in war is long, and the consequences are entirely predictable. In Gaza, the risks are immediate and long-term; those who are injured and survive their wounds face the second threat of disease.
The causal chain is simple. Water systems are damaged, raw sewage mixes in, people ingest and transmit whatever strains of disease exist. A review of the evidence shows spikes of acute diahrea mapped directly with the attacks on Gaza in 2014, and the cholera outbreak in Yemen that killed over three thousand people in 2018 was similarly predicted. So too were the hundreds of thousands of cases of both cholera and diahrea linked to the quality of drinking water in Basrah, Iraq, by 2017 – and the deadly protests that followed. The same pattern is apparent in Ukraine and Syria, as well. As argued in Just Security earlier this year, the base of evidence for – and foreseeability of – these links between damaged water systems and the spread of disease increases with time, as when one party to a conflict controls the territory of another.
The risk in Gaza is particularly high because of the strain already placed on the limited water resources people can access. From Alexander the Great to the British in World War I, armies passing through the Sinai desert once coveted the precious water under the sands of Gaza. But the resource has dwindled as hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were forced to flee to the strip of land during the “Nakba” in 1948. Decades of sanctions and violence since then have ensured that the sewage plants are failing, and water pipes remain consistently under-pressurized.
On top of all that, the water quality in Gaza is so poor that it requires treatment. If there is no electricity or fuel to run the water treatment plants, and no bottled water is allowed in, the only water people can drink is so salty that residents can scarcely shower with it.
Denying water to people or attacking drinking water systems is prohibited under International Humanitarian Law (IHL), which specifically protects objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population. The United Nations Security Council, which has authority to maintain international peace and security, further reaffirmed these rules unanimously in Resolution 2573. The rules have also progressed through the growing base of legal frameworks addressing the protection of the environment and of freshwater resources and related installations, not to mention the Human Right to water and sanitation.
Taken together, and like calls to avoid the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, the instruments are meant to provide greater protection to critical civilian infrastructure, and unimpeded access for repair crews. The standards exist precisely because the reverberating effects of attacks are known to persist long after the bombing has stopped. The norms are crystal clear, as the International Committee of the Red Cross recently stated: “critical infrastructure that people depend on to live – including electricity and water networks – must not be targeted.”
There is a pragmatic side to keeping water out of harm’s way, too. Following the laws of war is crucial to retaining compassion amid the fog of war, and to ending the cycle of violence. A modicum of humanity is required at these moments to see other civilians as equals. The fewer fellow human beings that are subject to such misery, the greater the chance to negotiate a ceasefire. The greater the amount of clean water that is available, the greater the ability to reach a lasting and just resolution of the conflict.
The end of this violence will not come through bombs, but when its underlying issues – ideologies about land, universal human values, blood spilt – are addressed. Implementing Security Council Resolution 2573 and keeping water out of harm’s way will reduce the suffering in the meantime and may hold the door open to those discussions.
The analysis and views presented herein are the author’s own.