28 March 2024

The Global Challenge of Water’s Weaponization in War

Lessons from Yemen, Ukraine, and Libya

The world's water is in trouble. Freshwater pollution, coupled with climate change, population growth, and increasing demand, threatens water quality and availability. The strain is clear already, as 26% of the world’s population lacks access to safe drinking water, and a whopping 46% lack access to basic sanitation. In countries experiencing conflict, these percentages soar. In 2015, 38% of people living in conflict-affected states lacked basic drinking water.

This grim picture is one reason why alarm bells rang in fall 2023 when an update to the Pacific Institute’s Water Conflict Chronology showed a worsening trend of water-related violence, encompassing water as a trigger of conflict, or its weaponization in warfare, or situations in which the resources itself become a casualty. And as the additional pressures of climate change compound global water insecurity, the targeting of water supplies – or the infrastructure required to move water to where it is most needed – is having a profound and lasting impact on communities and countries along the entire conflict cycle. These damaging tactics have been particularly devastating in the three different conflicts: Russia’s war in Ukraine, and in civil wars in Libya, and in Yemen.

  • Ukraine: since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine just over two years ago, its attacks on the Nova Kakhovka Dam and other civilian infrastructure have drawn attention to that country’s continued willingness to use water as a weapon. Researcher Marcus King said that the deliberate destruction of civilian water infrastructure by Russia is intrinsic to their warfighting methodology. The invasion of Ukraine offers tangible examples of how the interconnected nature of water and energy systems means that an attack on one system has ripple effects on the other.
  • Libya: Libya has fallen victim to a different kind of weaponization with catastrophic consequences. A decade of protracted conflict led to poor resource management and deteriorating infrastructure. The unusually heavy rains brought to Derna by Storm Daniel collapsed two dams, releasing an estimated 30 million cubic meters of water, and magnifying the dangers created by infrastructure that is neither conflict or climate-resilient. Water has also been used to extract demands or concessions from warring groups, militias, and warlords. These tactics usually involve small-scale looting, sabotage, threats to personnel, and obstructing access to repairing infrastructure, rather than targeted destruction.
  • Yemen: when water supply is a direct or an indirect victim of conflict, the effects are devastating for human health. Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in Yemen, where state and nonstate actors continue to vie for control over the country’s scarce water resources. Jafarnia noted that not only are water supplies being blocked by the Houthis, but there have also been documented attacks by the Saudi-led coalition on larger water infrastructure across the country—including pipes and water tankers.

Several international legal frameworks work to combat the weaponization of water in conflict. Yet enforcing existing international law is nearly impossible with nonstate actors and extremely difficult with state actors. So while enhancing legal avenues may be one effective action, more immediate and innovative solutions are ultimately needed to minimize the civilian harm created by water weaponization. Investing in more resilient water infrastructure, for example, through the mobilization of climate finance, could shrink the footprint of global water scarcity. When there is conflict, however, climate-resilient development is often pushed to the back burner, despite the fact that addressing issues related to food and water insecurity is a necessary piece of addressing conflict. As climate change compounds conflicts and water-related challenges around the world, it is important to recognize that water remains central to wartime strategy, human survival, and post-conflict recovery.

These are extracts from an article, published by the Wilson Center on their New Security Beat blog in March 2024, authored by Lauren Herzer Risi and Eleanor Greenbaum. The full article can be accessed through the link here. The three country-specific interviews with experts can also be accessed via these links: Ukraine, Libya and Yemen.

Photo credit: Дзюбак Володимир via Wikimedia Commons