Water as a Weapon of War


Mozambique - Water is necessary for life. We all know this, but many in the industrialized North take their water supply for granted. Water always flows when we turn on our taps.

Water is not taken for granted in other parts of the world. It is generally accepted that more than 1 billion people lack access to clean water and the health, economic and developmental consequences of this reality are dire.

Women and children spend hours collecting dirty water each day. A family cannot prosper if it spends hours each day fetching water.

Diarrhea, typhoid, cholera and other water-borne diseases haunt poor communities throughout the world. This is the price that families pay for a glass of water.

The World Health Organization (WHO) argues that more than 2 million people die each year from diarrhea linked to inadequate water supply. Most are children under 5 years old. These deaths are silent deaths, far from the cameras and the news. Perhaps today a child will die down the road from where I sit in Mozambique. Tomorrow the death will occur across town. A child’s death is gruesome to behold - all for a glass of clean water.

Development workers focused on water supply are often frustrated. Despite all our efforts, the number of people without clean water continues to climb. Water projects fail throughout the world every day because of inappropriate technologies, poor operation and maintenance, or because governments and communities lack the funds to purchase chlorine and other chemicals to treat water and make it safe to drink.

But water rarely stops flowing out of malice, hate or punishment. Even the cruelest dictators in the world would not use water as a weapon of war - the suffering would be too profound.

A Thirst for Vengeance
Many Americans worry about water as a weapon of war, particularly since September 11. Americans are right to worry. If terrorists could contaminate US water supplies, the impact would be cataclysmic. Americans would be fighting other Americans over the last supplies of bottled water at the convenience store. That baby dying of diarrhea could be a child down the street in Maryland, or Wisconsin or California. Tomorrow it could be my own child.

Sadly, however, water is being used as a weapon of war - and America is the culprit.

Since the end of the Gulf War in 1991, the US has enforced sanctions on Iraq that include a ban on shipments of equipment and chemicals necessary for water supply. Despite criticism from the international community and over the objections of other UN Security Council members, the US has strenuously defended tight sanctions on water treatment chemicals and equipment on the grounds that Iraq could divert these items to the military.

UNICEF, WHO and other concerned development institutions and human rights groups have questioned the US stance, correctly arguing that the inclusion of these goods on UN sanctions lists has no military or security logic.

Thomas J. Nagy of George Washington University has unearthed documents from the US Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) that clearly show the US’ concerns about the diversion of water treatment equipment and chemicals is disingenuous. In an article in the September 2001 issue of The Progressive, Nagy’s research exposed the whole strategy behind the sanctions - and it is evil.

The documents prove that the US has knowingly understood the human consequences of denying vital water-treatment chemicals to Iraq. The US has denied these critical water-treatment chemicals with intent of wreaking havoc on Iraq’s water supply system.

A January 1991 DIA report that was circulated widely within the Bush Sr. Administration, highlighted Iraq’s water-treatment vulnerabilities. The report argues that the disruption of water treatment facilities “will result in a shortage of pure drinking water for much of the (Iraqi) population” and predicted that Iraq’s water treatment capacity would take six months to “fully degrade.” After this point, widespread disease, “if not epidemics,” would ensue.

It was essential, the DIA report argued, that water-treatment supplies not be exempted from the UN sanctions for humanitarian reasons. With such supplies banned, the DIA noted, “no adequate solution exists for Iraq’s water purification dilemma, since no suitable alternatives, including looting supplies from Kuwait, sufficiently meet Iraqi needs.” Subsequent DIA reports document that the sanctions had reduced Iraq’s water supplies to a mere 5 percent of capacity.

As CNN reported on November 29, 2001, “the biggest problem in Iraq right now is not a lack of food or even medicine - it is a lack of clean water, and that is because the infrastructure is not being repaired. And it can’t be fully repaired without major imports of equipment. UNICEF says the biggest single reason that children are still dying at an abnormally high rate here appears to be that many communities do not have access to clean water.”

The result of sanctions against Iraq has not been the toppling of Saddam Hussein but rather the death of 5,000 children each month. That is 60,000 children a year - 500,000 dead children since the Gulf War ended.

Asked about these figures on national television in 1996, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright stated that the dying children in Iraq created “a very hard choice” for the US but “we think the price is worth it.”

And so vital water-purifying equipment is denied to the people of Iraq because they have a leader who is viewed as a threat by handful of the most powerful nations in the world. The casualties in this stand-off are children. The US knows this and does not care who dies in the process as long as this one man is dethroned.

The US continues to be the biggest purchaser of Iraqi oil in the world. If only Iraq’s children were as valuable to Americans as the liquid that fuels our SUVs.

America needs to ask hard questions of the administrations of Presidents Bush I, Clinton and Bush II. The international water sector needs to think clearly about how we respond to this affront.

America will never be great until it defends the rights of all innocent people in the world, especially in times of war. We have not done this, despite token efforts with food aid from the sky. The real proof of our weakness is in our callous response to suffering elsewhere in the world.

Mr. President, you have given us a false choice. I am neither for terrorism nor for your war. Rather, I am merely trying to give a child a clean glass of water. And if the child drinks the water and lives, then maybe, just maybe, she will remember us fondly.

Edward D. Breslin is a US citizen working with WaterAid in Lichinga, Mozambique. This essay represents his personal views. WaterAid [www.wateraid.org.uk] is the UK’s only major charity dedicated exclusively to the provision of domestic water, sanitation and hygiene to the world’s poor.

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