Rudd: Water a Central Element in UN’s Multilateral Work

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“Water, and the proper provision of water for civilians around the world, is critical to every dimension of what the UN multilateral system seeks to do in partnership with member states,” said Kevin Rudd, the former Prime Minister of Australia and chair of IPI’s Board of Directors.

Mr. Rudd, who is also Chair of the Sanitation and Water for All global partnership, was speaking at a March 22nd policy forum co- sponsored by IPI, the Geneva Water Hub, and the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) focusing on the severe consequences of armed conflict on access to water for civilian populations.

Mr. Rudd lamented that water in armed conflicts “increasingly is seen as a strategic target by belligerent actors and weapon to be wielded instead of the basic right it is for everybody.” He mentioned in particular research from UNICEF showing that children under 15 are three times more likely to die from diarrhea-related disease from polluted water and poor sanitation than from direct violence and that children under five are 20 times more likely to die from the same.

“Deliberate attacks on water and sanitation are attacks on children,” said Hamish Young, the Chief of Humanitarian Action and Transitions Section in UNICEF’s Programme Division in New York. “A lack of water has impact on children’s ability to attend schools, exposing children, especially girls, to sexual violence.”

He recounted how a camp where he was living in southern Sudan was raided by militias who stole all the cattle and destroyed a conservation and sanitation project that his NGO had constructed to catch and store rain and river water. “It’s hard to describe how fast the kids, well, the whole village, went downhill,” he said. “People started getting sick before our eyes, kids stopped coming to school, some turned up at the clinic with diarrhea and other illnesses, but most just retreated into their huts. Soon the clinic was swamped, the school was closed, and there was hardly anyone in the little marketplace. What really struck me more than anything else was the silence that descended on our little village.”

Lack of water affects children’s ability to go to school, stunts their education, and closes off their access to proper sanitation, he said. It also exposes children, and especially girls, to violence and sexual attacks when they are forced to walk long distances to collect water or just go to the toilet.

He said that as conflicts become more protracted and facilities remain damaged and out of use, there is a need to engage people from the development sector. “This is the so-called humanitarian-development-peace nexus,” he said. “While always respecting humanitarian principles, in particular neutrality and impartiality, there are ways we can meet humanitarian needs that will increase local capacity and leave something, including infrastructure, behind after the conflict.”

Mr. Rudd singled out menstrual hygiene as an area needing more attention and understanding. “If we don’t make that a centerpiece of what we do for sanitation and water services around the world, we are failing the young women and girls in the world in the pursuit of their educational opportunities,” he said. “So, guys, get used to talking about it every day. It should be part of our everyday vocabulary and not subject to any particular cultural cringe or embarrassment.”

Danilo Türk, former President of Slovenia, Chair of the Global High-Level Panel on Water and Peace and Lead Political Adviser for the Geneva Water Hub, described a new set of 22 principles on the protection of water infrastructure prepared by the Water Hub for the use of parties to armed conflicts, international organizations, and other practitioners working the in the contexts of armed conflict, including in the pre- and post- conflict stages.

“The protection of water infrastructure has been part of international humanitarian law for decades, but it has been neglected, and we have to figure out what are the steps forward for these rules to become not only well understood but also effective in practice,” he said. “The Geneva Principles will hopefully help in that effort.”

Sandra Pellegrom, Head of Development, Humanitarian Affairs and Human Rights at The Netherlands Mission to the UN, noted that the date was World Water Day and said, “It’s very important to look at water and its role hopefully as a driver for peace—water as a human right, and water as essential for development. And we feel the SDG agenda is an excellent way of looking at these interlinkages and looking across these pillars to approach water holistically.” She said that without integrated water resource management and sustainability and availability of water “we are not going to be able to ensure that no one is left behind on water and sanitation.”

Laurence Boisson de Chazournes, University of Geneva Professor of Law and member of both the Geneva Water Hub and the High Level Panel on Water and Peace, said that lessons learned from the application of water law could be applicable to general peace movements. “When you look at international water law,” she said, “you see there is a lot of attention paid to river basins, joint mechanisms. History—and this is noticed in our report—has shown that these water commissions are entry points for negotiations and that states don’t interrupt a negotiation about water during an armed conflict. So we think that we should strengthen the river commissions or the basin commissions so that they can help further the dialogue and restore peace because a key element of the high level panel is that water is a vehicle for cooperation, and we should stress this.”

On a similar note, IPI Vice President Adam Lupel remarked, “While we often talk about the risk of conflicts over water, we must not forget that water is an inherently shared resource, and water cooperation and water diplomacy can be made powerful instruments for peace.”

Dr. Lupel moderated the discussion.