By Peter Gleick
War is a miserable thing. It kills and maims soldiers and civilians. It destroys infrastructure, cultures and communities. It worsens poverty and development challenges. And it damages and cripples vital ecological and environmental resources.
The Problem<p>Over the long history of human conflicts, a set of ethical standards and legal constraints have evolved to try to limit or ban certain actions, behaviors and weapons, and to protect certain populations and assets from destruction. In theory, these rules and codes of conduct, referred to as <a href="https://www.icrc.org/en/document/what-are-jus-ad-bellum-and-jus-bello-0" target="_blank"><em>jus in bello</em></a> ("the law in waging war") or "international humanitarian laws," help to protect civilian populations, prisoners of war, medical personnel and facilities, and non-military property and infrastructure — including the environment.</p><p>In practice, however, these laws have largely failed to prevent attacks on basic civilian infrastructure and the natural environment, and they do not appear to impose accountability on governments in a way that limits military operations. Extensive evidence shows the growing effects of armed conflicts on civilians, built infrastructure and the natural environment — <a href="https://www.gleick.com/blog/water-conflict-and-peace" target="_blank">especially water</a>. Similarly, threats such as climate change are worsening the risks of agricultural failure, coastal flooding, population displacement, economic disruption and political failures contributing to violent altercations. Over the past few decades, persistent war and violence by nation-states and subnational groups has led to the "de-development" of entire countries, including Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan and others. Infrastructure has been destroyed, incomes and quality of life has plummeted, fertility and life expectancies rates have fallen, infant mortality and unemployment has soared, large numbers of people have been physically displaced from their homes and lives, and even the most rudimentary aspects of survival have been challenged, including access to basic energy and safe water and sanitation. In Yemen, for example, attacks on civilian water systems have led to a <a href="https://www.who.int/emergencies/crises/yem/en/" target="_blank">massive epidemic of cholera</a>, with over 1 million cases reported and over 2,000 deaths.</p><p>Three core problems exist: The current international laws of war inadequately protect natural resources and the environment in the context of civil war or local conflicts. Militaries and armed groups inconsistently identify and differentiate among legitimate and illegitimate targets and ambiguous language in current laws and agreements creates loopholes for the military. And the enforcement of laws of war — and punishment of violators of these laws — are rare and subjective.</p>
The State of Current International Laws of War<p>All these efforts, legal statements and principles fail to adequately protect civilians and the environment during armed conflicts. The 1991 civil war in Somalia destroyed the water system, which in turn contributed to outbreaks of cholera affecting 55,000 people. The destruction of Yemen's urban water system between 2016 and 2019 has led to massive cholera outbreaks and suffering. <a href="https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn25722-extremists-in-iraq-now-control-the-countrys-rivers/" target="_blank">ISIS attacked major dams</a> along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and used them as weapons to either deny downstream populations of water or to flood areas for military purposes.</p><p>Recent trends related to water offer insights into the weaknesses and limitations of current international humanitarian environmental law. The <a href="https://www.worldwater.org/water-conflict/" target="_blank">Water Conflict Chronology</a> database identifies water as a trigger, weapon and casualty of armed conflict. The chart shows the number of recorded events, per year, since 1930 and the dramatic increase in recent years. When characterized by the type of conflicts, we also see a shift from nation-to-nation conflicts toward sub-national events including riots, civil wars, and terrorism.</p><p>The chart shows a large increase in the number of reported events after the mid-1980s. Conclusions about trends in water-related conflicts should be made with caution because of changes in media coverage, access to broader sources of information and increased attention focused on the problem. Nevertheless, incidences of water-related conflicts have been rising rapidly. While the use of water as a weapon and attacks on water systems can be found in every time period and continent (except Antarctica), the past decade has seen a dramatic increase in such attacks focused in the Middle East and North Africa — particularly in Iraq, Syria, Yemen — involving civil conflicts with major outside and proxy forces.</p><p>These trends suggest serious limitations to the protections offered by current humanitarian laws of war.</p><p>Most constraints on actions during conflict have been formulated in the context of interstate war, not civil wars, subnational conflicts, or local internal violence. Yet most recent violence has been subnational, not nation-to-nation.</p><p>The ambiguity of language in the laws makes it easier to exploit loopholes. Militaries inconsistently identify and differentiate among legitimate and illegitimate targets and fall back on claims of military "necessity" and "proportionality."</p><p>Even when violations seem clear, enforcement and punishment of violators of these laws are rare. Parties to the Geneva Conventions have an obligation to enforce its provisions and to bring to trial persons who have allegedly violated its provisions. but nations have been unable or unwilling to enforce relevant provisions. Consequently, a new Environmental Geneva Convention is needed, focused on protecting the environment, natural resources and vital civilian infrastructure that supports basic needs like water, food, and energy.</p><p>Two modest international efforts at strengthening protections of the environment and resources during conflicts have recently moved forward. The first is adoption by the International Law Commission of the United Nations of <a href="http://legal.un.org/ilc/sessions/71/docs.shtml" target="_blank">draft principles governing protection of the environment</a> during armed conflict. The second is a set of <a href="https://www.unige.ch/droit/eau/en/une/2019/liste-principes-geneve/" target="_blank">principles for the protection of water infrastructure</a> developed by the Geneva Water Hub of the University of Geneva.</p>
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