Event Summary: Water and Conflict Panel at UNGA 78

Panel Participants


Amb. Adrian Hauri Deputy Permanent Representative of Switzerland to the UN 
Pedro Arrojo-Agudo Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation
Wim Zwijnenburg Humanitarian Disarmament Project Leader, PAX for Peace
Simav Hassan Advocacy and Communications Officer, Syrians for Truth and Justice 
Salman Khairalla Iraqi Environmental Activist
Mara Tignino Lead Legal Specialist, Geneva Water Hub 
Ernesto Granillo Humanitarian Advocacy and Policy Specialist, UNICEF 
David Kaelin Urban Services and Policy Advisor, The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) 


On October 20, Natasha Hall moderated a side event to the 78th session of the UN General Assembly, entitled, “Water and Conflict: Addressing Water Insecurity Issues in Fragile and Conflict-Affected Countries.” In light of the new report from the Special Rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation, Pax for Peace, the Geneva Water Hub, and the permanent missions of the Republic of Slovenia, the Swiss Confederation, and Mozambique to the United Nations (UN) brought together government leaders, civil society members, and researchers to discuss rising threats to water in conflict-affected areas. Speakers discussed the ramifications of protracted water insecurity and highlighted the urgent need to protect water infrastructure in conflict-affected regions. 

Water insecurity and scarcity are both drivers and consequences of fragility and conflict, and speakers discussed ongoing efforts to tackle this challenge. Amb. Adrian Hauri highlighted a World Bank report that estimates around 46 percent of the world's poor will live in areas characterized as fragile or conflict-affected by 2030.1 Amb. Hauri stressed the importance of upholding international humanitarian law, which prohibits attacks against objects indispensable to the survival of civilians, such as water infrastructure and natural resources. He also described access to safe drinking water and sanitation as a fundamental human right. He argued that transboundary water management can be a tool for building peace and security among actors who share rivers and aquifers, and he emphasized water sharing and management at the basin-level.  

Researchers and civil society members delved into the cases of northern Syria and Iraq, where water access and quality have been neglected and weaponized for years. Wim Zwijnenburg explained that frequent oil spills from oil infrastructure, damaged water facilities, and a lack of solid waste management all contribute indirectly to the deadly effects of protracted conflict in Syria. The diminished quality and quantity of water resources in Syria negatively affect civilians’ heath, food security, and livelihoods. Therefore, Zwijnenburg called on the international community to adopt a framework with stronger legal principles and norms around the protection of water. Simav Hassan also highlighted the need to consistently report and investigate violations of the rights to water and sanitation.  

Iraq is similarly vulnerable to transboundary issues and has increasingly suffered from water scarcity and quality issues in recent years.2 Salman Khairalla noted that approximately 80 percent of Iraq’s water resources are dependent on neighboring countries. The absence of stable water-sharing agreements between these states further complicates water security. As Hall pointed out, tens of thousands of people have been displaced in southern Iraq alone due to climate change and water insecurity issues, according to the International Organization for Migration.3 

The conversation then examined how threats to water security in fragile and conflict-affected areas are playing out worldwide. Mara Tignino noted that norms in existing UN charters, such as Resolution 2573, prohibit attacks on water installations by all parties to an armed conflict. Regardless, practitioners are still struggling to deal with water insecurity, especially in protracted conflicts. Ernesto Granillo recommended improving sanitation and water services at the local level, facilitating cooperation over water management, investing in the water sector, and collecting more consistent water data. David Kaelin stated that while the ICRC's water programs serve about 30 million people annually, the need for intervention is increasing while its capacity to respond is decreasing. Amb. Hauri noted how inequitable and unsustainable water management can be just as fatal as war itself, as demonstrated by the collapse of two dams collapsed in Libya, which killed thousands. 

Speakers concluded that there is a pressing need for improved and impartial data collection, even in the midst of conflict. By consistently applying international humanitarian law in water management, the international community can reinforce the norm that something as essential as water should be off-limits—even in times of war.