Water under fire

The role of water in conflicts around the world.

A girl carries water in a refugee camp, Syria
21 October 2023

The right to safe drinking water and sanitation is rooted in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, United Nations resolutions and the Geneva conventions. It is a right that is as critical to the survival of children as food, medical care, and protection from attack. But from State of Palestine to Ukraine, to Yemen and beyond, it is clear that crises have become increasingly protracted and conflict threatens interconnected urban service systems.

To improve children’s access to clean drinking water, and to save lives in conflicts and crises, UNICEF calls for three major changes:

Stop attacks on water and sanitation infrastructure and personnel.
Deliberate and indiscriminate attacks on water and sanitation – and power supplies required for them to function – can be a violation of international humanitarian law. So, too, is the intentional denial of services.

Build a water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) sector capable of consistently providing high-quality water and sanitation services in emergencies.
The WASH sector needs to build technical, operational and personnel capacity to address increasingly complex and protracted crises.

Link life-saving humanitarian responses to the development of sustainable water and sanitation systems for all.
This requires building systems that can ensure the right to safe water and sanitation and prevent outbreaks of disease. And it demands that humanitarian and development organizations collaborate from the start to establish systems that will remain resilient.

Attacks on water are attacks on children

Water resources and the systems required to deliver drinking water have been attacked for centuries. All too often, the human dependence on water has been exploited during conflict. Nearly all of the conflict-related emergencies where UNICEF has responded in recent years have involved some form of attack hindering access to water, whether directed against water infrastructure or through incidental harm or tactic used by a party to the conflict to limit water supply to conflict-affected populations. Where there has been conflict, water has been part of the battleground – whether explicitly targeted or incidentally affected by actions or conduct during armed conflict.

When a community’s water supply is cut off, children and families are forced to rely on unsafe water, or leave their homes in search of a new source. At times this may mean families have to reduce or ration their water supplies, other times it means drinking water that is clearly contaminated and dangerous.

For children, the consequences can be deadly, as water and sanitation related diseases remain among the leading causes of death in children under five.

There are different ways that water can be used as a weapon, which include attacking water infrastructure and workers, or denying access.

For example:

  • Attacks on water and sanitation infrastructure: this includes both intentional attacks, such as targeting pipelines or pouring concrete into wells, and inadvertent attacks, where reckless bombardment with no attempt to avoid critical civilian infrastructure results in damaged or destroyed water and sanitation systems.
  • Stopping the flow of water: this can include turning off water pumping stations so pipes run dry, or even shutting down electrical systems so that water pumping station cannot operate.
  • Contaminating water: when water sources are poisoned, the water has been turned into a weapon. This includes throwing dead human or animal bodies in a well to contaminate the water supply as a tactic to deny a community safe water.
  • Attacks on water and sanitation workers: humanitarians and local workers around the world are often at risk when working in conflicts. Many have come under attack, been injured or killed while repairing critical civilian infrastructure. Even the threat of attack can deter maintenance or repair, leaving a community without safe water.
  • Denial of humanitarian access: often in conflicts, humanitarian workers and supplies are denied access to reach communities or areas that need assistance.

But attacks on infrastructure and personnel are just two of the numerous threats affecting children’s access to water and sanitation. In many protracted conflicts, water and sanitation systems aren’t just targeted, but are left either undeveloped or in a state of disrepair. In some cases, there was not an adequate water or sanitation system to begin with, and the onset of conflict simply exacerbates the problem.

Ultimately, children caught up in conflict should not live in fear of bullets and bombs. And nor should they die or suffer for a lifetime by being denied access to water and sanitation services because the water source was attacked or cut off.

Explore the reports

UNICEF launched the Water Under Fire campaign, including its Water Under Fire report, in March 2019 to draw global attention to three fundamental areas where changes are urgently needed to secure access to safe and sustainable water and sanitation in fragile contexts. As part of the campaign, it has launched three additional volumes:

Vol. 1: Emergencies, development and peace in fragile and conflict-affected contexts

Focuses on the need for immediate action to accelerate water and sanitation service delivery in fragile and conflict-affected contexts; prevent water-related tensions between groups and political entities; and ensure the right to water and sanitation for every child.

Read the report

Vol. 2: Strengthening sector capacity for a predictable, quality humanitarian response

Is dedicated to the water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) sector’s capacity to deliver a predictable, quality humanitarian WASH response, and provides a change agenda and road map towards strengthening this capacity.

Read the report

Vol. 3: Attacks on water and sanitation services in armed conflict and the impacts on children

Focuses on attacks on water and sanitation during armed conflicts and highlights issues children face in accessing water in times of war. The report demonstrates the humanitarian impact on children through case studies from Iraq, the State of Palestine, Syria, Ukraine and Yemen.

Read the report