Last September, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights Michelle Bachelet raised the spectre of parties to the conflict in Syria using water, electricity and other essential services as weapons in the war that has afflicted Syria since early 2011.
As an already precarious situation worsens, people’s lives are increasingly in jeopardy due to denial of water, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The World Council of Churches (WCC) Ecumenical Water Network condemns those who are depriving the innocent and vulnerable of their human right to water in this time of a pandemic.
"Water is a gift of God. It is a grave sin to use that gift as a weapon of war. It is a sin to deprive people of the water they need to quench their thirst and to subject them to increased risks of illness and death from the coronavirus during this pandemic time," said Bishop Arnold Temple, chairperson of the Ecumenical Water Network.
The Ecumenical Water Network has urged the then UN special rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation, Prof. Leo Heller, to take particular note of the situation of Al-Hasakah in war-torn Syria, where people have been victimized by the instrumentalization of the water supply in the conflict between the warring parties.
“When warring parties seek to use access to water as a weapon of war, this violates the human right to water and sanitation,” added Temple. "Let us be clear: the use of water as a weapon of war violates international humanitarian law and the human right to water and sanitation," he said.
Bachelet’s declaration also cited the example of Turkish-affiliated armed groups disrupting water supply in Ras al-Ain, affecting access for up to one million people, including displaced people living in camps.
Similarly, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, which controls al-Hassakeh, has been accused of hindering electricity supplies for the water pumping station.
"As we have previously warned, impeding access to water, sanitation and electricity, endangers the lives of large numbers of people, a danger rendered all the more acute amid fighting a global pandemic,” said Bachelet.
Bachelet urged all parties to the conflict to ensure the protection of civilians and civilian infrastructure.
And further back in 2015, the International Committee of the Red Cross had raised red flags on using water in war.
It said the civilian population in the city of Aleppo was suffering acutely because of deliberate cuts to water and electricity supplies.
Around two million people live in the city but many, on both sides of the front lines, are having severe difficulty in accessing water said the Red Cross.
"Vital services for the people, such as the water supply, must be kept away from the politics of the Syrian conflict," the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross delegation in Syria, Marianne Gasser said at the time.
Following the recent crisis affecting al-Hassakeh, the WCC's project teams in Syria provided field testimonies collected from civilians as well as other information resources.
Alternative confrontation point
They found that since the suspension of military operations between the Syrian Democratic Forces and Turkey's military forces and allies represented by the Syrian National Army in October 2019, essential services such as water and electricity had become an alternative confrontation point between the parties to the conflict.
The teams cited one woman saying, "The situation has become unbearable for us, the poor, who do not earn a stable income. I cannot even buy vegetables to feed my family."
Another woman said, "The water services were already poor as water was available once every 10 days. We could barely manage with this shortage of water supply. Now there is no water at all except for tank water that is not usable for drinking. The lack of water is deeply affecting our hygiene and health. I cannot even bathe my children."
One man said, "Our children and elderly became ill because of the consumption of groundwater and the water distributed by mobile tanks. It is dirty and not suitable for drinking, let alone very expensive and hard to obtain."
In response to the crisis, the autonomous authority drilled 50 water wells to cover the local needs in al-Hassakeh, but the water had been too polluted to consume as drinking water.
Churches have long called for all parties to the conflict in Syria not to exploit essential public services as weapons of war, as well as to refrain from measures that may prevent civilians from obtaining their basic needs and may compromise their safety.
Bishop Temple concludes: "We pray that the temporary restoration of water supply to the affected al-Hassakeh region would not be interrupted again and a long-term solution to protect people's right to water and sanitation be respected by all concerned parties."