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 This is not the case in all countries, some of which are burdened with outdated infrastructures dating back to colonial eras that are completely out of step with current demographic and urbanization trends.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.