The Guardian May 21, 2003

War in Iraq and the right to water

Water is essential for human life. No one can survive without sufficient 
water for drinking, cooking, washing and general hygiene. The human right 
to water is recognised in international law and must be defended during 
times of war.

The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has 
adopted the general comment on the right to water which states that the 
human right to drinking water is fundamental for life and health, and 
sufficient and safe drinking water is a precondition for the realisation of 
all other human rights.

The Geneva Conventions of 1949 (Protocol 1, Article 54) state: "It is 
prohibited to attack, destroy, remove or render useless objects 
indispensable to the survival of the civilian population such as 
foodstuffs, crops, livestock and drinking water installations and 

The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court prohibits: 
"Intentionally directing attacks against civilian objects, that is, objects 
which are not military objectives."

Public health crisis

On May 12, almost two months after the US invasion of Iraq and a month 
after the US occupation of Baghdad, there were still large portions of the 
population lacking safe water and the resulting public health crisis 
includes high rates of illness and death related to water-borne diseases. 
The following news items come from the International Committee for the Red 
Cross (ICRC).

* Repair work started on Abu Nuwas pumping station, heavily looted in 
recent weeks. This station is extremely important for supplying water to 
poor areas of Al Sadr, Khamalyia, Al Ameen and Al Uboor districts. 
Unfortunately by the next morning looters had not only stolen equipment but 
had also destroyed what remained.

* Water distribution by tankers covered 18 locations, delivering 190,000 
litres over the past few days. Emergency repairs continue in Al Amari water 
treatment facility.

* Fear of cholera epidemics in southern Iraq is increasing, and the WHO has 
already sent samples to Kuwait for clinical testing. Cholera is endemic in 
the south and this is the "season" for it. However, given the deteriorating 
overall health situation, it will be much more difficult to cope with it 
this year. The security situation (destruction and looting of water 
facilities) is ultimately to blame for the spread of cholera and other 
water-borne diseases.

* The pumping station at Al Hayyanniyah, which supplies Al-Zubair, has been 
completely looted, leaving half the town's population of 50,000 with 
problems of access to water. The repair of the Shuaiba pipeline allows some 
water to reach Al-Zubair.

Lessons from 1991 Gulf War

During the first Gulf War, attacks against Iraqi infrastructure by US-led 
military forces claimed a minimum of 110,000 civilian causalities. The vast 
majority of deaths were caused not by the direct impact of bombs but by the 
destruction of the electric power grid and the ensuing collapse of the 
public health, water and sanitation systems leading to outbreaks of 
dysentery, cholera, and other water-borne diseases.

An epidemiological survey conducted in Iraq in August 1991 reported the 
deaths of 47,000 children under the age of five.

Accountability for war crimes

War crimes are international crimes for which there is individual 

Although the US has expressly rejected the International Criminal Court, 
the US Congress in 1996 enacted the War Crimes Act under which civilian 
courts have authority to try either civilians or members of the armed 
services for war crimes and grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions.

The Center for Constitutional Rights and the Center for Economic and Social 
Rights are co-operating with a wide range of organisations to compile 
evidence and prepare legal strategies to prosecute all parties that commit 
war crimes in Iraq.

* * *
Public Citizen

Back to index page