Water: a vital resource at the heart of the ICRC’s mandate

Water is a fundamental need and is recognized as such, even if – in practice – this notion is often exploited or abused in times of crisis. Indeed, through no fault of its own, this natural resource frequently finds itself at the heart of conflicts, all the more so because it is vital to the survival of certain populations who are caught in the crossfire of opposing interests, governmental or otherwise. This is the driving force behind the work done by Water & Habitat at the ICRC.

Javier Cordoba, responsible for the department water and habitat on behalf of the ICRC in the Middle East, talks about the importance of water in all activities of the ICRC. We met him for a talk on the occasion of the regatta Bol d’Or Mirabaud 2017, which he joined as skipper on one of the two boats that were placed at the disposal of the ICRC by the Mirabaud Group.


Why does water represent such an important challenge for the ICRC?

Water plays a crucial role both in periods of conflict and in the wake of natural disasters, since both its scarcity and its poor quality have an immediate adverse impact on people's health. We are witnessing this now in Yemen where this is fuelling the resurgence of water-borne illnesses, such as dysentery and cholera. This is an indirect consequence of the conflict. When the quality of essential services suffers, we notice a rapid deterioration in hygienic conditions, and unfortunately it is the health of locals that pay the price.

Each year more than four million deaths are attributable to water – be this due to lack of access, poor quality or illnesses it carries – making it one of the main causes of mortality on the planet. The role stagnant water plays in the spread of malaria is well documented, for example. Its scarcity can also be an aggravating factor for tensions among communities. But when water returns, we quickly notice an improvement in the situation: tensions ease, health improves and people can concentrate on other important matters because they do not have to walk for kilometres to secure their supply of potable water.

How are your activities on the ground organized?

I mainly work on crises in the Middle East. Our activities to meet the fundamental needs of the local population are focussed on restoring or expanding supply and sanitation infrastructures, as well as healthcare infrastructures that have been damaged by the effects of war. On the topic of water, the regional local authorities know what they need to do and have trained and specialized persons within their ranks. This is not the case in all countries, some of which are burdened with outdated infrastructures dating back to colonial eras that are completely out of step with current demographic and urbanization trends.

Returning to the work we do, our modus operandi is quite conventional. First comes the evaluation phase. After this, we set about restoring, upgrading or developing the necessary infrastructures, working in close conjunction with all the local players: water services, access and distribution providers, healthcare services, electricity suppliers and administrative bodies. It goes without saying that the solutions are not always easy to put in place. Sometimes, imagination is called for, like in Gaza, where – in order to construct retention ponds – we reclaimed parts of the wall that had been built to separate Egypt from Gaza in order to circumvent the embargo on construction materials in this territory.

What do you do when you are denied access to infrastructures?

We have solutions, but the area where we could implement them is not always accessible, more often than not for reasons of security. When an area is not deemed safe, we do not take any undue risks; this is a strict rule that we observe in all situations at all times. Restrictions to access such as these are one of the largest challenges we face, and negotiation is the only weapon we have in our arsenal to combat it.

Moreover, water is often exploited and misappropriated in order to put pressure on the enemy. From time to time, we also find ourselves in particularly complex negotiation situations, as recently in Aleppo in Syria. The dam used to supply the whole town was located in an area controlled by the Islamic State (IS), the electricity network was in the hands of the government, while a large portion of the local infrastructure (pipelines, ducts, etc.) was under the control of the various opposition groups. Water was vital for all of the warring factions, thankfully meaning, in this case, that cooperation was a must.

What is the difference between supplying water to the countryside and to an urban environment?

We often picture the Middle East as a massive desert. What we forget is that Iraq, for example, is criss-crossed by two major rivers: the Tigris and the Euphrates. This surface water that flows through the major urban centres facilitates the supply of water overall. But things are not as simple as that; all the more so because today towns have become the new theatres of war.

Moreover, since the majority of the population live in urban areas, the supply and sanitation of water can becomes particularly difficult, especially in cases of prolonged conflict. And when supply capacities rely on a hard infrastructure that is susceptible to being damaged, the challenge is even greater. The problems are less pronounced in the countryside, because generally communities naturally organize themselves around their sources of supply, such as wells, which they manage themselves. In cases like these, water becomes a very good vehicle for cooperation, strengthening social cohesion and solidarity. In towns, people have no control over their supply channels; they are therefore completely dependent on the forces that are pulling the strings.


Tell us about one of your greatest technical challenges.

Following the embargo placed on Syria prohibiting it from importing certain chemical goods, the authorities in charge of water were confronted with a tremendous challenge since they were no longer permitted to use chlorine gas to disinfect the water and had to switch to chlorine powder instead. This required a major adjustment to all the water treatment plants across the country. The ICRC put in place a programme to support this process of change.

Does innovation allow you to put solutions into practice more effectively?

From the outset, the ICRC has understood that innovation can facilitate the work it does, even if this is not always exclusively technological. We have experienced numerous examples of this, such as the driving role the ICRC has taken on in expanding international humanitarian law. However, it is also true that technological innovation has taken centre stage for a few years now and we have stepped up our efforts and our alliances – in particular with companies and universities – to better respond to developing humanitarian challenges.

A wide range of initiatives have been launched within this context, for example solutions aimed at optimizing the consumption of energy and improving the resilience of systems that are vital to the smooth running of essential structures such as hospitals and pumping stations have been developed. We also work closely with various EFPL  laboratories as part of the Humanitarian Tech Hub programme. This involves developing projects for research (namely in the field of orthopaedics), training and cooperation; we can also call on the expertise and advice of specialists in biometrics and medical devices.

But there are other approaches to innovation, and sometimes these approaches can be more straightforward. A good example of this is our "biogas" sanitation programme in prisons. Rather than emptying wastewaster into the sewer system, we collect it and store it under a bell jar.

This system allows us to recover the methane emitted by the faecal matter and convert it into gas to fuel the kitchens. Systems like these – which are usually constructed using whatever materials and means are at hand – have already proven their worth in Nepal, Ethiopia and Sri Lanka. They improve working conditions within prisons themselves and reduce the health problems experienced by inmates, while at the same time preserving limited natural resources, such as wood.

You frequently respond to emergency situations. But are there also ways in which you take a more proactive approach?

The value-added offered by the ICRC lies in its wealth of experience as well as in its ability to intervene in emergencies. But we also have a great deal of expertise in dealing with regions, countries or populations living in situations of protracted conflict. The work done by the Water & Habitat unit often straddles the worlds of relief and development. We work preventatively, when the situation allows, by strengthening essential services: water, of course, but also food, energy production, healthcare facilities and the construction of shelters for displaced individuals.

When we know, for example, that we are going to be faced with a massive influx of persons fleeing combat and that these people will chiefly be seeking refuge in urban centres, we actively try to strengthen existing infrastructures so that the system can absorb the increase in demand. We did precisely this in Lebanon in anticipation of the arrival of large numbers of Syrians who were moving inexorably towards the border.

In Mosul, our response was initially focussed on the surrounding towns and villages so we could meet the needs of inhabitants fleeing the besieged town. In parallel to this, we are already working hard to repair the network and infrastructure in safe zones.