The Protection of Water Facilities under International Law


Water has often been used as a strategic target in war since at least the time of the siege of Tyre in 596 B.C. Even when water facilities are not targeted, they are often among the first casualties of the violence. At the end of the twentieth century, conflicts in Africa, the Balkans, and the Middle East caused tremendous suffering to the civilian populations after disruption of the water supply. This article focuses on the extent to which water facilities are protected under international law. It outlines principles of customary law and the existing international conventions and protocols in this area, including principles of naval warfare.

At a time of increasing world concern over the quality and availability of water, we face the prospect of disputes, sometimes violent, over limited freshwater resources. International efforts to sustain supplies have focused on management rather than conflict prevention, and international legal regimes have received too little attention. This article focuses on protection of water facilities under international law, defining such facilities in broad terms to include all retention and delivery facilities. These issues become wide-ranging, as urbanization increases the need to import water from further afield, as in the current plan to transfer water to Israel from Turkey. Moreover, the increasing complexity of delivery systems, and their relationship to power supplies, increase their vulnerability to conflict.

International law has evolved as the nature of conflict has changed, but has yet to respond to the increasing phenomenon of intra- rather than interstate conflict, or to the rise of terrorism. Little attention has been given to the implications of possible terrorist attacks on water facilities, especially in view of the development of chemical and biological threats. The article considers current problems and weaknesses in existing law, and includes discussion of a hypothetical terrorist attack on a city water supply in Turkey. It considers the present state of international law, and provides recommendations for legal regimes that will better protect the civilian population and the supply of fresh water.

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