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Great Lakes Article:

Water as a Weapon of War

This is a article written by Edward D. Breslin, an employee of WaterAid working in Lichinga, Moçambique. 
December 30, 2001


Water - so basic and so necessary for life. We all know this of  course, but many in the West understandably take their water supply  for granted. Water is readily available, cheap in the USA at least,  in abundant supply, and always flows when we turn on our taps.

Water is not taken for granted in most parts of the world however. It  is generally accepted that over 1 billion people do not have access  to clean water in the world, and the health, economic and  developmental consequences of this reality are dire. Women and  children spend hours collecting dirty water each day and lose  valuable time, energy and calories (which are in

short supply anyway) in the process. A family can not prosper if it  spends hours each day fetching water, and the bite is twice as  painful because that water is so often contaminated that the family  has to spend what little it has looking for a cure. All that effort  for something that inevitably undermines your health - it is cruel.

Diarrhoea, typhoid, cholera and other water-related diseases haunt  poor communities throughout the world but are the price families pay  for a glass of water.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) argues that over 2 million people  die each year from diarrhoeal disease linked to inadequate water  supply. Most are children, most under 5 years old.

And they suffer before they die. A child suffering from acute  diarrhoea is listless, can not produce saliva, can barely speak, can  not sit up, and can barely swallow. The body shrivels, as the last  remnants of moisture within are sucked dry by a parched body. Cholera  is worse of course, as is typhoid. The child's death is gruesome to  behold - all for a glass of water.

Few hear their cries, even if the child could muster a tear. These  deaths are sadly silent deaths, far from the cameras and the news,  because it picks off children one at a time. Perhaps today a child  will die down the road from where I sit in Moçambique. Tomorrow the  death will occur across town. The following day there may be a  respite - no deaths today, but tomorrow... Hardly gripping but no  less tragic than the famine camp footage that periodically galvanises  the world.

Development workers focused on water supply struggle and are often  frustrated. Despite all our efforts, the number of people without  water continues to climb - despite claims from some in the sector to the  contrary. There are many debates as to why this is happening, and the  reasons are complex. But the truth is that many water projects fail  throughout the world every day. Projects fail because of  inappropriate technologies, poor operation and maintenance systems,  or a lack of finances on the part of governments and communities to  keep their systems operational. Projects

fail to improve health because many countries do not have the  finances to purchase chlorine and other chemicals necessary to treat  water - to make it safe to drink. Too often, these basics are out of  reach.

And the sector races against time as each day without clean water  will mean more death, more anguish, more suffering - all for a drink  of water.

But water rarely stops flowing out of malice or hate or punishment. No, even the cruellest dictators in the world would not use water as a  weapon of war. The consequences are too much, the suffering too  profound. Even the coldest dictators, who have shown scant regard for  the welfare of people under their control, would not go that far. Surely water is off limits.


Many Americans worry about water as a weapon of war, particularly  since September 11th. Americans are right to worry. Terrorists could  conceivably contaminate US water supplies. The impact would be  cataclysmic - Americans fighting against Americans over the last  supplies of bottled water at the convenience store. That baby I  describe dying of diarrhoea could be a child down the street from us  in Maryland, or Wisconsin, or California. Tomorrow it could be my  child....

Sadly, water is being used as a weapon of war, and America is the  culprit. And the international water sector needs to think clearly  about how we respond to this affront.

America needs to look at itself as well. It needs to ask hard  questions. It needs to look into the eyes of hate and stare it down,  and sadly those eyes are our own. And it needs to ask hard questions  of the administrations of Presidents Bush I, Clinton and Bush II.

But where is the evidence? Well, it has been known for some time that  the US has enforced sanctions on Iraq that include equipment and  chemicals necessary for water supply. These include spares necessary  to maintain water systems, and chemicals needed to treat contaminated  water. These sanctions have been in place since the end of the Gulf War.

Many have criticised the inclusion on these items of sanctions lists,  but the US has consistently and strenuously defended tight sanctions  on water treatment chemicals and equipment on the grounds that Iraq  could divert these items to the military. Weapons of mass destruction  could be made with this equipment and these chemicals, so they must  be banned.

Yet Thomas J. Nagy of George Washington University has unearthed  documents from the US Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA), an Agency  within the US Department of Defence, that most clearly show the US'  concerns about the

diversion of water treatment equipment and chemicals is disingenuous.  The documents conclusively prove that the US has knowingly understood  the human consequences of denying vital water treatment chemicals to  Iraq as part of UN Sanctions. They suggest that the US has denied  these critical water treatment chemicals with the knowledge and  intent of reeking havoc on Iraq's water supply system (The Progressive, September 2001).

Nagy's research brings the whole strategy behind the sanctions debate to light, and it is evil.

The DIA documents are frighteningly cold but meticulously researched and argued documents. DIA produced a report in January 1991 that was  circulated widely within the Bush Sr. Administration that highlighted  Iraq's water treatment vulnerabilities. The report argues that,  "failing to secure supplies will result in a shortage of pure  drinking water for much of the (Iraqi) population". The report  predicted that Iraq's water treatment capacity would take six months  to "fully degrade" (June 1991) after which widespread disease, "if  not epidemics" would ensue.

Most importantly, DIA argues the following: "unless water treatment  supplies are exempted from the UN sanctions for humanitarian reasons,  no adequate solution exists for Iraq's water purification dilemma, since no suitable alternatives, including looting supplies from Kuwait, sufficiently meets Iraqi needs.

Subsequent DIA reports document what is known about civilian  casualties through the inclusion of water purifying chemicals and  equipment on the Iraqi population. They show that Iraq's water  supplies are running at 5 percent capacity.

The administrations of Presidents Bush Sr., Clinton and George W.  Bush have all vigorously enforced the inclusion of water treatment  chemicals (like chlorine), water extraction technologies and basic water supply  equipment on UN sanctions lists, often over the objections of other  Security Council members wishes. UNICEF, the World Health  Organisation and other concerned development institutions and human  rights groups have all questioned the US stance, correctly arguing  that the humanitarian consequences of the inclusion of these goods on  UN sanctions lists has no military or security logic.

As reported on CNN on November 29 2001, "One of the biggest problems  with sanctions now is that a huge range of equipment needed for  water, sanitation and the oil industry, is routinely blocked at the  sanctions committee by the U.S. and Britain because of fears that  they could be used for military purposes. These are items as basic as  water pumps... International humanitarian workers say 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 UN sanctions against Iraq has not, as hoped, been the  toppling of Saddam Hussein but rather the death of 5,000 children  every month. That is 60,000 children a year. That is 500,000 children- dead children - since the Gulf War ended.

When asked on national television in 1996, former Secretary of State  Madeleine Albright stated that the large numbers of dying children in  Iraq created "a very hard choice" for the United States but "we think  the price is worth it."

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

The US drones on about Iraqi culpability, and claims that all would  be resolved if Hussein simply let inspectors into Iraq. Yet the US  continues to be the biggest purchaser of Iraqi oil in the world, and  does not have the courage to ask hard questions about our appetite  for oil in light of child deaths.

So we help the Iraqi regime by purchasing oil, but we do not have the  compassion, vision or leadership to have this fight with Saddam  Hussein in a way that spares children.

If only children were as valuable to Americans as the liquid that  fuels our SUVs.

Surely it's the wrong target, and surely I am allowed to ask these  questions even in an environment where "criticism" is shamelessly  linked to the evil of al Qaeda. Surely we can look into the eyes of  children and see their innocence. Hopefully, we can look into our children's eyes and see  other children, maybe even an Iraqi child. And surely what we will  see will transcend meaningless debates about an individual dictator,  or a strategy to oust him.

Children, who have no choice over what happens in the world of  geo-politics, are the casualties here - all for a glass of water.  Sadly, we are culpable, particularly given the fact that the US  argues that Saddam Hussein does not care about his people. Wouldn't  it be an amazing revelation to the world if we actually showed Iraqi  children that we in fact did care for them, that we in fact could see  beyond the politics to the people, to the children?

And it raises a sharp image for me - when we think of chemical  laboratories where schemes are hatched to construct weapons of mass  destruction, we think of mad scientists who have lost their grip on  reality. We think of government psychopaths urging them on with a  glint in their eye. And we imagine their names are Middle Eastern and largely unpronounceable.

The faces I am now confronted with are from within the US Government,  within the US Defence Intelligence Agency of the US Department of  Defence, within Presidential Administrations, with names like George,  Dan, George Jr., Dick, Al and Bill. They are not the faces of some "other" but of us.

The tragedy of September 11th is so clear to us, so real, and so  powerful. Not one person deserved to die in New York, Washington or  on a plane that crashed in Pennsylvania. Likewise, not one Afghani  deserves to die, or one child who had the misfortune to be borne into  a county that the United States does not like. America will never be  great until it argues and 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, and our utter lack of compassion. Collateral  damage is thrown around as if they were car parts. Sadly, they are  children. Not one child deserves to die because of a dispute - real  that it may be - between Washington and Baghdad, or the International  Coalition led by the US against 10, 000 al Qaeda operatives backed by  a despotic regime.

Someone needs to show leadership, and sadly it is not coming from the  current administration or the American public who unquestioningly  follow. No, 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 Lichinga, Moçambique 20 December 2001

Sharon Brand-Self WaterAid Media Relations Manager Tel: 020 77934501

Charity No. 288701

WaterAid is the UK's only major charity dedicated exclusively to the  provision of safe domestic water, sanitation and hygiene promotion to  the world's poorest people. WaterAid's vision is of a world where all  people have access to safe water and effective sanitation.

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