The war being waged against WASH facilities

A climate-resilient water system built by UNICEF and regional water authorities in Afdera, Ethiopia. Photo by: Mulugeta Ayene / UNICEF Ethiopia / CC BY-NC-ND

Amid a conflict-stricken region, gunfire, explosives, and airstrikes might be considered the biggest threats, but a new report by UNICEF highlights that attacks on WASH infrastructure are almost as devastating, particularly to children.

While some attacks may be incidental, others are purposeful, used to terrorize a population, or as a military advantage, explained Ernesto Granillo, humanitarian advocacy and policy specialist at UNICEF and lead author of the report. “Both lead to the same humanitarian consequences.”

A lack of access to clean water can lead to diseases like cholera and diarrhea as well as malnutrition and wasting. According to UNICEF research from 2019, children under 5 are 20 times more likely to die of diarrheal diseases than violence in fragile countries while children in extremely fragile contexts are often more than eight times worse off across WASH indicators as a whole.

Critical to communities’ wellbeing, attacks on WASH facilities can be devastating and have significant consequences in health, education, economic prosperity, and migration while also jeopardizing a person’s human right to water and sanitation.

“The most that can be done is to punish attacks on WASH facilities without reservation, swiftly, and with a clear, unimpeachable record of what happened.”

— Luke Wilson, deputy director, The Center for Water Security and Cooperation

WASH facilities as a prime target

Without water, hospitals also struggle to function, exacerbating health care gaps, and, according to Luke Wilson, deputy director at The Center for Water Security and Cooperation, people can be pushed to migrate in search of basic services.

In spite of international humanitarian law and human rights law that protect WASH infrastructure, their status as the “lifeblood” of a community means WASH facilities can be considered a target.

“[It’s] an opportunity to disrupt critical services that many people are depending on for their survival, including wells, water storage, water access points, and toilets,” said Rolando Wallusche, Catholic Relief Services’ technical adviser for WASH, calling such facilities “a primary target.”

Aside from physical damage, cyberattacks pose another threat to facilities. Last year, Israel saw two cyberattacks on its water management facilities that sought to manipulate chlorine levels and shutdown systems.

For Wilson, the risks to WASH facilities appear to be increasing. “There seems to be a growing willingness to attack WASH infrastructure and personnel, whether to punish a population, to encourage migration, or just as an act of cruelty,” he said in an email.

UNICEF’s report lists 122 airstrikes on water infrastructure in Yemen between March 2015 to February 2021, 380 in Eastern Ukraine in 2017, and 95 attacks against 142 water and sanitation infrastructures since 2019 in the Palestinian territories.

A lack of prosecution and condemnation has driven up the risk, Wilson said. Terrorist groups are also aware most countries won’t target WASH infrastructure so they use the facilities to store weapons or shelter fighters, he added.

“This type of shielding is illegal, and it puts WASH facilities in the crosshairs more and more. More than that, this shielding is forcing countries to decide whether to attack first and then compensate or provide water to the population through humanitarian aid,” he said.

In the nine countries highlighted in UNICEF’s report — including Yemen, Palestine, Iraq, and Ukraine — almost 48 million people are estimated to need safe WASH services.

Reliant on existing sources of water and on immovable infrastructure, WASH facilities can’t be rebuilt quickly, Wilson said. Even if an engineer comes to fix a water source, they’ll likely only be able to fix it to 70% of its capacity, Granillo said. This is due to a potential lack of infrastructure, staff, and resources compounded by the conflict.

With that in mind, prevention is even more crucial yet in conflict areas, where security can be fragile and unpredictable, it’s challenging to protect WASH facilities from bombs or armed militia, Wallusche said.

How to safeguard WASH facilities

Creating a clearer mark for WASH facilities that identifies them as being nonmilitary and unlawful targets could be one solution. “This would be like creating the Red Cross for hospitals, but for other critical infrastructure,” Wilson said, adding that while it might not stop an attack, it would make it harder for perpetrators to claim ignorance.

“Otherwise, there's not much to do,” he said. Building conflict-resistant facilities and locating facilities far from other targets, while potential preventative measures, would likely be costly, he said.

“In reality, the most that can be done is to punish attacks on WASH facilities without reservation, swiftly, and with a clear, unimpeachable record of what happened,” Wilson said. He suggested culprits be denied statehood if they're seeking it, the imposition of sanctions and imprisonment, and ejection from power.

In the report, UNICEF calls for states “to take firmer action to hold the perpetrators of these attacks to account” and for donors to invest in WASH in conflict situations.

Everyone — the United Nations, countries, and NGOs — needs to increase attention, collect the evidence, and create the mechanisms for complete accountability, Wilson said. “This includes accountability for the perpetrators as well as those who stand by and do nothing,” he said.

Taking an alternative approach, Granillo said many in the sector are working to sensitize parties to conflict on the effects and repercussions their operations can have. He recalled an attack that was documented by a team consisting of a weapons expert, former military person, legal adviser, health specialist, and humanitarian law figure.

Why water NGOs need to be prepared to handle conflict

With water-related conflicts on the rise, some say water NGOs need to get better at preventing and resolving tensions before they boil over.

The subsequent report, which is confidential, was then sent to parties of the conflict to jumpstart dialogue to prevent such an attack from happening again, he explained, adding that documenting attacks requires a cross-sectoral programmatic response.

Granillo said host countries must also grant visas to engineers so they can take remedial action post-attack while more verifiable data is also needed. “Often unless the [U.N. security] council or secretary-general has specifically directed agencies on collecting data or producing this report on this issue, it won’t necessarily be done,” he said, citing a lack of instruction and budget.

Yet better documenting attacks could help prevent further attacks, Wallusche said. He called for the creation of “a centralized coordinating organization to promote more transparent and standardized data collection from all the stakeholders and report this out for advocacy purposes.”

The report suggests data collection be guided by professionals with specialist skills and mainstream reporting on attacks into other relevant existing humanitarian reporting mechanisms.

“Attacks on WASH infrastructure and resources should be seen as among the most heinous crimes known to humankind, and treated as such by all. We need to up the ante, make sure that there are real consequences for attacking WASH facilities. Until we do that, these attacks will keep happening,” Wilson said.

Visit the WASH Works series for more coverage on water, sanitation, and hygiene — and importantly, how WASH efforts intersect with other development challenges. You can join the conversation using the hashtag #WASHWorks.

About the author

  • Rebecca Root

    Rebecca Root is a Reporter and Editorial Associate at Devex producing news stories, video, and podcasts as well as partnership content. She has a background in finance, travel, and global development journalism and has written for a variety of publications while living and working in New York, London, and Barcelona.