STOCKHOLM, Sweden, Jul 11 (IPS) – The role of water in conflict is changing, with more attacks on environmental and civilian infrastructure. Dr Martina Klimes of the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI) recently gave a talk outlining the changing security landscape and how water can be both a weapon and a victim of war – and sometimes a tool for peace.
The Kakhovka dam disaster in Ukraine on June 6 is a painful reminder of how collapsing water infrastructure can cause enormous suffering in times of war, sometimes with consequences that last for generations. Ukraine accuses Russia of destroying the dam and using it as a weapon of war.
“This would be in direct conflict with the 1977 Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions which protects civilians in times of war,” says Dr Martina Klimes, Water and Peace Advisor at SIWI.
On June 14, she participated in a breakfast in the Swedish parliament with other representatives of the Stockholm Hub on Environment, Climate and Security of which SIWI is a founding member.
Klimes’ presentation described the different roles of water in warfare:
- • Direct impact – where water and attacks on water infrastructure are used as a weapon of war.
• Indirect impact – when military operations harm the environment, for example by poisoning water sources or contaminating the soil.
• Cross-border impact – where the consequences are also being felt in other countries.
During the war in Ukraine, the three dimensions are carefully monitored by local and international organizations to an extent rarely seen in other wars. Already before the Kakhovka dam disaster, the Ukrainian authorities estimated the cost of the environmental impacts of the war at around 50 billion euros.
Rivers, groundwater and soil are polluted and many national parks are affected in the country described as the richest in biodiversity in Europe. In 2022, 16 million Ukrainians needed water, sanitation and hygiene assistance.
By following the environmental consequences of the war so closely, the Ukrainian government hopes not only to facilitate reconstruction. Another goal is to collect evidence that could be used in a future war tribunal against Russia.
President Zelensky said the charges could include ecocide, in addition to the four types of crimes currently covered by the International Criminal Court (ICC). In recent years, the idea of making ecocide a fifth crime under the Rome Statute of the ICC has started to gain ground.
The European Union parliament recently voted to incorporate ecocide into European law.
At the United Nations, a commission has assessed the shortcomings of existing international law and presented a set of more ambitious measures draft principles on the protection of the environment in relation to armed conflict.
But researchers who have studied Yemen, Libya and Syria say that attacks on civilian and environmental infrastructure have become more common in the last decade.
“This causes immense suffering to local populations and the impact often goes beyond national borders. We also know that environmental degradation is a risk multiplier that can trigger social instability and violence,” says Klimes.
Meanwhile, a historical report on the subject – environment of peace – was presented last year by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), another partner of the Stockholm Hub on Environment, Climate and Security.
At the same time, countries and regions can reduce stress by building the resilience of ecosystems and humans. Collaboration around, for example, shared waters can also foster cooperation and peace.
To raise awareness of these complex interdependencies, SIWI is actively working to bring together actors with different types of skills. An example is the Shared Waters Partnership Program strengthen cross-border cooperation in the field of water.
Each year, SIWI also hosts a high-level panel during World Water Week on water safety issues. This year, the event will take place on August 23 at 11 a.m. CET on the theme Innovative approaches to support peace and conflict prevention.
Maria Skoldis Senior Manager, Communications.
Martina KlimesPhD, is Advisor, Water and Peace, and Cooperation on Transboundary Waters.
IPS United Nations Office
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