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How The United States Can Expand its Leadership Role in Ending the Weaponization of Water

By: Jackson Garrity

The weaponization of water is a problem in modern military conflicts. This activity exacerbates humanitarian crises, which in turn intensifies a number of threats to American national security. Among these threats are large numbers of displaced persons who must seek shelter abroad and power vacuums that allow terrorists to find safe havens amid anarchy. Two examples of this are the conflicts in Yemen and Syria. In Yemen, both Iranian-backed Houthi rebels and a Saudi-led international coalition have been accused of strategically denying civilian populations access to clean water to harm their adversaries. The cities of Hodeidah and Taiz, key logistical points in the country, have both at varying points in the conflict been cut off from the rest of the country, resulting in severe water shortages. As a result, an estimated 19.3 million Yemeni civilians lack access to clean water or sanitation. A cholera epidemic that has swept across the country resulted in 1,207,596 cases and 2,510 deaths in 2017 and 2018. As the stalemate has dragged on and the rule of law has grown weaker, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has been able to linger and regroup, despite past signs that the group, once the most feared branch of the organization in the world, was finally on the decline.

In Syria, the siege of Aleppo saw both government forces and rebel groups, including ISIS, strategically denying water to various parts of the greater Aleppo governate. According to a study by REACH, the siege of Aleppo resulted in an estimated 70,000 additional displaced Syrians, a severe escalation of an already devastating humanitarian and security crisis. Although the weaponization of water is only one factor involved in these complex conflicts, it is undeniable that it is compounding the number of people displaced from their homes and contributing to the unrelenting nature of the wars.

In this context, the United States could benefit greatly by adopting policies which minimize the use of water deprivation as a weapon of war. The United States could help reduce threats to vulnerable populations and reduce the catastrophic humanitarian crises that result because of such weaponization. In doing so, the United States would help alleviate pressure on neighboring countries to take on additional refugees displaced by humanitarian need and could reduce adverse military actors’ tactical options, thus forcing them to come to the negotiating table. The reinstatement of governance and the rule of law would also be a key first step to the elimination of terrorist safe havens like those in Yemen and Syria.

One strategy the United States could take to achieve this goal could be the adoption of foreign policy regulations modeled after California’s “right to water” law. The California law, AB 685, requires state agencies to study the impacts that their decisions have on California citizens’ access to water. Similarly, the United States could adopt a law requiring federal agencies, including the Departments of Defense and State, to release studies evaluating how their various decisions impact civilian populations’ access to water. The United States has already explicitly recognized water as a human right under the Geneva Convention, and implicitly under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, and elsewhere.

UN Resolution 64/292 “[r]ecognizes the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right that is essential for the full enjoyment of life and all human rights.” It also reaffirms “the responsibility of States for the promotion and protection of all human rights”. The United States called for the vote on the resolution, but notably abstained from voting on the final draft due to concerns related to the precise definition of the right to water. The General Assembly adopted the resolution by a vote of 122 in favor, none against, and forty-one abstentions.

Under Article 54 of the First Protocol of the Geneva Convention, ratified by the United States, “It is prohibited to attack, destroy, remove or render useless objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population, such as . . . drinking water installations and supplies and irrigation works, for the specific purpose of denying them for their sustenance value to the civilian population or to the adverse Party.” This prohibition does not extend to water resources used solely by combatants. It applies only to resources that are used at least in part by a civilian population. Participants in a conflict may still deny each other access to water if they ensure it does not interfere with the water rights of civilians.

The policy suggested here would make U.S. foreign policy more coherent. Importantly, there would be no requirement imposed by such a policy on agencies to change their decisions based solely on the impact on civilians’ access to water. The policy would only require agencies to study and report the impact of their decisions on water rights and consider that impact as one of many important factors before making a final policy determination.

At its most effective, the policy could make continued American support for actors in a conflict contingent on their impact on local water supplies. At minimum, it would pressure such actors to work to mitigate and minimize their impact on civilian water supplies. Information transparency requirements could force greater accountability for U.S. allies in these conflicts who otherwise would not experience external pressure. Additionally, increased information would allow NGOs and other concerned actors operating in conflict zones to better target their resources and alleviate water shortages.

It could be argued that it would be unfair to require U.S. allies to unilaterally disarm. If enemies of American allies such as Iran and its proxies can use water as a weapon, the United States would be asking its allies to fight with one hand tied behind their back. However, by choosing to hold its allies to a higher standard of conduct, the United States would legitimize water access as a human right and thus gain a new tool to delegitimize rivals in intergovernmental forums. Furthermore, there is little point in achieving a military victory if the populations of the countries being fought over are decimated as a result of conflict. The United States’ greater overall strategic interest is better served by enforcing human rights standards strictly and minimizing the risks created by water and sanitation deprivation.


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