Eleven years ago today, 22 aid workers were killed in a bombing at the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad. World Humanitarian Day, celebrated each year on Aug. 19, commemorates all people who have lost their lives in humanitarian service and celebrates the spirit that inspires humanitarian work around the world.
This year, there is sadly no dearth of humanitarian crises to acknowledge – ISIS militancy in Iraq, bombings in Gaza and Israel, Syria’s ongoing brutal civil war, and the worst Ebola crisis on record ripping its way through West Africa, to name a few.
Importantly, water plays a role in each of these crises – either as a necessary ingredient to mitigating the adverse humanitarian impacts of these situations, or in Iraq’s case, as a potential weapon of terror.
The ongoing fight between Kurdish forces and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) extremist group for control of Iraq’s Mosul Dam underscores the force that water can play in state security. Already one of the most dangerous and structurally unstable dams in the world, the Mosul Dam requires constant grouting operations to maintain its delicate structural integrity.
In the hands of untrained militants, the dam could be used as a major weapon of destruction by simply failing to maintain it. In the worst-case scenario of an instantaneous failure, the dam could result in 65-foot flood waves in the downstream city of Mosul – and damage could extend all the way to Baghdad, causing a major humanitarian crisis that would compound the already growing number of internally displaced persons forced from their homes by ISIS.
To the west, damaged water infrastructure in Gaza poses a significant public health threat. There, 67 percent of the population has no or very limited access to water, and 90 percent does not have access to potable water. While Palestinians living in Gaza have long had water access challenges, before the most recent crisis, nearly 97 percent did have access to largely non-potable water coming from an aquifer on the southern coast. In the past weeks, humanitarian agencies reported that water supply and wastewater infrastructure has been hit in missile strikes, resulting in cut or severely disrupted water supply and sewage services to two-thirds of the population of Gaza.
Syria faces similar problems, as the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) warn of a worsening water crisis there. “The lack of rain, low water levels, armed conflict and damaged water and sanitation infrastructure are causing a worsening drought in Syria with dire humanitarian consequences for millions," said SARC head Abdul-Rahman Attar.
“We call on local and national authorities to cooperate with all aid agencies present in the country to not only meet current needs, but also develop a longer-term response to this deepening crisis,” he added in a joint SARC/ICRC statement late last month.
Another deepening crisis – the spread of Ebola in West Africa – is compounded by a lack of water needed for basic infection control measures. While simple tools such as sterilization techniques and health behavior changes could help stave off the rapid infection rate, few resources and limited information reduce the impact of such interventions. Humanitarian workers are working hard to spread this simple messaging that could save hundreds of lives.
On this World Humanitarian Day, Pure Water for the World stands in solidarity with the thousands of organizations – and the individuals who work with them – that risk violence and disease each day to ensure that all people have the dignity of their most basic needs met.