“If we have water,
we have everything”
150 years of humanitarian action
September 1980: The Iran-Iraq war begins. Later to become the 20th century’s longest conventional war, the conflict is compared to the First World War. It is marked by trench warfare, hand-to-hand combat with bayonets, human waves across the ‘no-man’s land’ separating forces, use of mustard gas and chemical weapons, and the death of at least half a million combatants.
May 1985: A major cyclone hits the Bay of Bengal and almost 1 million people lose their homes. Then Mexico City is rocked by a major earthquake, which kills more than 600 people. And in November, the Nevado del Ruiz volcano in Colombia erupts, entombing 23,000 people in mud and debris and turning a once fertile valley into a lunar landscape.
April 1986: The Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union, melts down, releasing radioactive particles that spread over much of western USSR and Europe.
Photo: ©Catherine Peduzzi/ICRC
1984: A BBC report shocks the world with devastating pictures of people, including many children, starving to death in Ethiopia. Describing the situation as an “apocalypse”, the report leads to a storm of media interest and an unprecedented global humanitarian response to famine in Africa, including a concert organized by rock musician Bob Geldof. Turnover of aid at the League of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (now IFRC) doubles as operations and delegations expand dramatically. Despite enormous logistics problems and the lack of capacity to coordinate operations of this magnitude, the ICRC, the League and National Societies saved many lives through large-scale food distribution, health services and water delivery, among other things. The global outpouring of support and media coverage are followed by intense scrutiny of the overall humanitarian response. Much of the aid, channelled through the Ethiopian government, did not reach starving people in rebel territory and some argued the aid prolonged the war by bolstering the government. In 1986, an independent inquiry found that the League did better than most organizations and “many who are alive today would have perished without the Red Cross Red Crescent interventions”. But it also concluded that the League, already overwhelmed with disaster operations in the early 1980s, was overextended and needed to focus on building its capacity for multiple large-scale interventions.
October 1986: The International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent votes to suspend the South African government delegation (but not the South African Red Cross) as a protest against apartheid. The decision is derided by some as a weakening of the principles of universality and neutrality, while applauded by others.
May 1988: The Soviet Union begins its withdrawal from Afghanistan.
October 1988: The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum opens in Geneva.
1989: The Berlin Wall comes down and the Soviet Union collapses. Many in the West are optimistic that the end of the cold war will lead to a ‘peace dividend’.
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DELICATELY BALANCED on the top rungs of a rickety bamboo ladder, Abdul Hamid grapples with electric wires that will supply She Darak with energy and bring power to pumps providing critically needed clean water.
The head of the community development council, Hamid also donated a parcel of land so that the ICRC could drill the last of five boreholes to bring water to this neighbourhood on the outskirts of Kunduz, a city of some 250,000 people in the far north of Afghanistan.
Abdul Hamid Photo: ©Nick Danziger
It’s vital work as more than two-thirds of the wells feeding Kunduz are in Seh Darak. But it’s precarious. Here at the edge of town, the last mud-brick homes meet fields (known as the ‘badlands’) that extend to the horizon. Beyond, it’s too dangerous for humanitarian workers to venture.
Years of insecurity have meant four generators, necessary to draw water, have stood idle. Eventually the community came to the ICRC, which agreed to repair the generators and made provisions to protect them. The new boreholes and electrical connections — along with 12 kilometres of new pipe — will benefit around 11,000 people.
Spare parts and expertise
In many parts of Afghanistan, water is pumped by hand. But when pumps break, local communities don’t always have the parts they need and it’s too dangerous for staff with expertise and tools to go out to repair them. In this case, the ICRC invites local engineers to its office in Kunduz for training and help in finding the spare parts.
“We have had a water pump on the corner of our street for 20 years, but it has broken 20 times,” says Abdul Hakim, a truck driver, mechanic and water committee member in Ze Khel, Kunduz. “It gets used so heavily, it’s not surprising.”
Now a local engineer has fixed the pump in Ze Khel with spare parts and additional training from the ICRC. In this way, nearly a third of 430 scheduled hand-pump repairs have been carried out, an example of the ways humanitarians sometimes must use ‘indirect’ or ‘remote’ assistance with local partners in areas where access is not possible.
Essential to survival
Because water is essential to survival, access to water is afforded special protection under international humanitarian law. But when fighting destroys water systems — or renders the construction and repair too costly or risky — the consequences are serious.
The village of Deh Bala is a good example. Halfway up a rocky mountainside, more than two kilometres of pipe brings clean water from a spring to a cement and stone water tank, where, on a recent afternoon, exuberant girls, boys and men have beaming smiles. “Water is our biggest problem: we need our health first and foremost,” one of them says. “If we have [clean] water we have everything.” A quick survey reveals every child has suffered serious stomach pains and diarrhoea.
Now, trenches are being dug for pipes that will bring water directly to the village below. “There are no clinics, no doctors and no [pharmacies],” says Bashir, an ICRC engineer running the project. “So protecting a natural source, rather than letting people drink directly from open water channels, immediately alters their standard and quality of life.”
Water for all
Access to water is not only protected under international humanitarian law. Along with sanitation, it’s also a fundamental human right, according to a United Nations resolution adopted in 2010. Still, roughly 1 billion people lack access to safe water and more than 3 billion — nearly half of the world’s population — do not have adequate sanitation.
When a storm, flood or earthquake breaks up water and sanitation systems, this deficiency can be even more deadly. Starting in the early 1990s, the IFRC began deploying Emergency Response Units — teams of people with the expertise and equipment needed to serve various levels of need (from 15,000 people in rural areas to 50,000 people in urban settings). The IFRC and National Societies have also been working with global partners, as well as local and national authorities, to expand access to sanitation and safe water for vulnerable communities — before disaster strikes.
While progress is being made, there are still massive gaps. In 2012, a Joint Monitoring Project by the World Health Organization and UNICEF reported that a Millennium Development Goal to increase people’s access to improved water sources is on course to be met by 2015. But the goal of reducing by half the number of people without basic sanitation will fall short, largely because sanitation projects are not as enthusiastically funded as water supply projects. “Governments, donors and humanitarian actors must all ensure sanitation activities are at least as well funded as water supply,” says IFRC Secretary General Bekele Geleta. “We must get the balance right.”
For displaced populations during emergencies, such as those living in this camp in Myanmar, clean water is critical to survival. Movement workers and volunteers built safe toilets, dug new wells and created water distribution systems that provide more than 8,000 litres a day to the camp’s population.
Photo: ©Andreas von Weissenberg/IFRC