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
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
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
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"
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
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
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 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:
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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