Unsafe Water Kills More Children In War Than Bullets, UNICEF Report Finds

A UNICEF Report has found that children under the age of five are 20 times more likely to die from diseases related to unsafe water, sanitation and hygiene, than from direct violence as a result of war. Released to coincide with World Water Day, the report emphasises the importance of water and hygiene service provision in conflict zones, particularly for young children. Analysing World Health Organization mortality data on ‘collective violence’ and ‘diarrhoeal disease’ from 2014-2016 in 16 countries, the UN body found that diseases linked to unsafe water, sanitation and hygiene services kills on average 72,000 children under five per annum. In contrast, the report found direct violence kills an average of 3,400 children under five per annum.

Henrietta Fore, UNICEF’s Executive Director, has emphasized the necessity for access to safe water and sanitation services during war. Fore contends that “the reality is that there are more children who die from lack of access to safe water than by bullets. Water is a basic right. It is a necessity for life”. Omar El Hattab, Unicef’s Regional Chief of Water, Environment and Sanitation for the Middle East and North Africa also claimed that “Human beings can run away or take shelter from bullets or bombs, but they will run towards and seek out water at any cost”.

Whilst Hattab’s statement underlines the importance of providing safe water systems in conflict zones, the statement overlooks the reality that many people in wars can’t run away from violence and bombs. In the case of Yemen, Libya and Syria, three countries included in the report, air strikes are well known to target civilian areas, so people can’t escape this form of violence either. Besides, the report highlights the brutal consequences of inadequate access to water and hygiene services in wars, recognizing the diverse nature of violence that is experienced by populations in conflict. Whilst reducing bodies to statistical data sets reveals little about the reality of war’s violence on children’s everyday lives, the report highlights the necessity to broaden traditional understandings of violence, in order to better safeguard populations affected by war. In granting attention to unsafe water as a form of violence in war, other forms of direct violence should not be overlooked, such as physical violence, sexual violence, forced displacement, and recruitment of child soldiers. In all cases, violence must be condemned regardless of its shape or form, and ‘types’ of violence should not be prioritized as more important than others. The United Nations must liaise with its partner organizations to generate innovative forms of infrastructure that provide support for children experiencing wars violence, whether it be from bombs, bullets or unsafe water.

The countries included in the analysis were Afghanistan, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Iraq, Libya, Mali, Myanmar, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. The report found that diarrhea killed more children under 5 years in all countries analyzed except Libya and Syria. Under 15s were also more likely to die from diseases related to unsafe water in all countries excluding Libya, Iraq, and Syria. UNICEF reported that war prompts attacks on water and sanitation infrastructure, stopping the flow of water, contaminating water sources, and attacks on water and sanitation services employees. The report stated that militaries and armed groups envisage water and sanitation systems as weapons of war, frequently targeting such systems in order to attack civilians and gain power. Attacking civilians by any means breaches the Geneva Convention, so the use of water systems as a weapon of war must be considered as a violation of international law.

The report illustrates that access to clean water, sanitation and hygiene services must be considered a fundamental human right granted to all, regardless of geographical location or political circumstances. In response to the report, the UN should enforce regulations that prevent militaries and armed groups from targeting water resources. If the diverse nature of wars violence is not better understood, children in conflict zones will continue to be prohibited from receiving necessary support, including sufficient access to water, sanitation and hygiene services.

Olivia Abbott