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Four Ways Conflict affects Water Resources and How UN Peacekeeping Helps

In this story series, UN Peacekeeping shows the impact of Action for Peacekeeping, which guides peace operations across 12 active missions.

A life without access to water is a life without peace. Yet as 2030 draws near, the international community is falling behind on our promise to give everyone access to clean water and sanitation. In 2021, the World Health Organization reported that one in four people — 2 billion people worldwide — lack safe drinking water, while almost half of the global population lacks safe sanitation. For many of the civilians in peacekeeping mission contexts, this reality is all too familiar. Learn more about the impact of conflict on water and how UN Peacekeeping helps.

A member of the Chadian contingent of the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) offers a boy a drink of water. Photo credit: UN Photo/Sylvain Liechti

Ongoing conflict makes it unsafe for women to gather water

For women in Shabunda territory, South Kivu in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a trip to fetch water can mean never making their way home again. There are over 100 active armed groups is the country, especially prevalent in the northeastern part of the country. This poses a threat to all, and particularly women, who often need to walk several kilometers to fetch water. Aside from the danger of accidentally being caught in a crossfire, ongoing conflict can also result in increased gender-based violence against women and girls because arbitrary killings and rape are often used as tactics of war.

A woman collects water from the newly installed tap in Shabunda, DRC. Photo credit: UN Photo/DDDR

In October last year, the United Nations Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) contributed a water tank and 48 standpipes to the community, providing daily water supply to more than 100,000 inhabitants, and allowing women to go on with their daily lives in peace.

Peacekeeping missions help support vulnerable women’s access to water by providing water directly to communities, building boreholes and providing escorts to civilians on their way to fetch water.

In times of war, people may flee to places without a water source

Earlier last year, an upsurge of violence in Upper Nile, South Sudan forced 20,000 people to flee their homes and seek refuge outside the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) base in Kodok. As the chaos and confusion begin to quell, humanitarian needs become more apparent. They were simple yet meaningful requests: emergency aid, a warm meal, a drink of water, a bath, and perhaps a fresh set of clothes.

Some of the 20,000 displaced people in Kodok, South Sudan collect water. Photo credit: UN Photo/Nyang Touch

Yet meeting these demands for thousands of people can be a challenge. Aid workers and displaced civilians both know that the danger may last from weeks up to months at a time and for the time being, this temporary shelter has to become home; a home somewhat able to support household activities such as cooking, washing, bathing, and using the bathroom. The amount of water needed to provide for such a large population is tremendous, and often more than any location can support immediately, if at all.

For Opiti Tor, a refugee who arrived in Kodok just eight days prior, the presence of Blue Helmets is reassuring after the horrors he has witnessed. “It has been a difficult time for many of us but we are grateful to peacekeepers for providing us immediate protection,” he stated. “We hope humanitarian partners will establish more water points because clean water is essential for us at the moment.” While long-term solutions to restoring peace in the area are being explored, UNMISS peacekeepers and partners have been responding to civilians’ needs by sending trucks filled with potable water and constructing water boreholes in viable locations.

During conflict essential pathways to water sources are often destroyed or neglected.

The Nyangezi bridge in South Kivu spans the Cihanda river, linking the borders of Rwanda, Burundi, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo — — and the lives of more than one million people who depend on it. Moreover, it is the only road leading to the village of Uvira, providing UN peacekeepers with life-saving access to displaced populations in need of protection from armed groups.

In a joint effort with Congolese authorities, peacekeepers from MONUSCO’s Civil Engineering Office used their expertise to rehabilitate the Nyangezi bridge in South Kivu as well as the Lushoga and Kihira bridges in North Kivu. Without these bridges, trade and livelihood activities will be obstructed and access to medical facilities and schools made all the more difficult, especially during the rainy season. According to Papy Minga Malenga, Provincial Director of the North Kivu Roads Office, “the rehabilitation of the Lushoga bridge has considerably improved the living conditions of the population”. Peacekeeping missions regularly rebuild essential infrastructure such as bridges to allow them to conduct patrols and better protect civilians from armed groups, provide well-needed support to displaced populations and prevent and monitor human rights violations.

Opposing tribes may dispute over scarce water resources

The dry, desert village of Matalmen in Mali is home to over 2,500 people. Every year, from March to June this community welcomes hundreds of herders and their livestock during their seasonal movement, a phenomenon called transhumance. Yet, this influx of animals and humans has begun to weigh heavily on the already meager water sources. As a result, tensions grow between herders and the local population during peak season.

While such conflicts may seem odd and ancestral, they often result in violence, loss of livelihood, injury, and even death. To prevent conflict despite rising tensions, the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) increased the village’s access to water by providing a borehole and a water tower. Additionally, peacekeepers supported the livelihoods of the village’s farmers by teaching them planting techniques and providing supplies. With enough water and a reassured livelihood, herders and village farmers can coexist peacefully in Matalmen.

For long-term solutions to transhumance concerns and limited resources, UN peacekeeping missions in Mali, South Sudan, Abyei, and Central Africa frequently facilitate community dialogues to assist parties to arrive at peaceful agreements, and at times, even local policies.

In July 2010 by the United Nations General Assembly of the human right to water and sanitation. Providing water to communities in need and securing safe access to this essential resource is part of the protection efforts of UN Peacekeeping missions. More than 95% of peacekeepers today are mandated to protect civilians and strengthening protection efforts is a priority under the Action For Peacekeeping (A4P) agenda and its implementing strategy A4P+.

The majority of peacekeepers today serve in missions with mandates that prioritize the protection of civilians, which includes preventing conflict and sexual violence, protecting women and children, and promoting human rights. It is a key area of the Action for the Peacekeeping agenda and its implementation strategy A4P+, which includes Cooperation with our host countries as a priority and Women, Peace and Security as a cross-cutting theme.