Water and habitat: An ICRC priority for 30 years
Every year, the ICRC brings drinking water and better living conditions to some 20 million people. Water and habitat has changed a lot over the last 30 years, as have the challenges, says Jean-Philippe Dross, head of the ICRC’s Water and Habitat Unit.
How has the impact of conflict on living conditions and water changed over the last few decades?
At the start of the 1980s, it was rural communities and refugees in camps who most needed our help, for example in Latin America, Angola and Ethiopia. But from the early 1990s onwards, we began to see an increasing number of conflicts breaking out in urban areas. This was the case in the former Yugoslavia, in Iraq, and today in Syria. This meant that we started doing a lot of of our work in towns, as urban dwellers are much more affected by the destruction of infrastructure than those who live in the countryside. In rural areas, local residents are often able to find solutions to the problems created by war, such as ways to repair a damaged well. If a town’s water-distribution station is destroyed, on the other hand, the impact on the inhabitants is much greater.
Another change we’ve seen in more recent conflicts is in the scale and time frame of our work. Today, we have to bring assistance to people spread out across a larger area and for a longer period of time. This is particularly true in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo.
How have you changed your approach to meet these needs?
We have had to work with other aid-providers and form partnerships to maintain and develop local capacities. We’ve had a long-term presence in around 15 of the 84 countries where the ICRC has been active over the last 30 years. In conflicts that last for several years – such as in Iraq, where hostilities began in 1991 – our engineers are no longer simply required to remedy immediate problems. They have to work hard over the long term and on increasingly specialized tasks, which is why we have recruited specialists in electromechanics, electricity, construction and earthquake-proofing. Today, more than 500 ICRC engineers work every day to bring essential aid to millions of people worldwide.
Has your work in prisons changed too?
Yes, we’ve honed our approach in prisons by working closely with the authorities to ensure that the structural solutions we put in place to improve detainees’ living conditions are long-lasting. After all, repairs to water systems, toilets and kitchens will have a limited effect on prison health and hygiene if the facilities are not well-maintained afterwards. For this reason, we establish rules that clearly outline the maintenance responsibilities of prison staff. Our aim is to improve the way these places of detention function in the long term, to the benefit of the majority of detainees.
What challenges are you facing today?
It is almost always possible to find solutions to technical problems. However, it’s difficult to do this when we lose access to certain parts of the country, as we’ve found in Somalia. So we’re building up our skills in geographical information systems technology, to enable us to better handle the growing quantity and complexity of information that we’re receiving. Satellite photos and digital mapping systems help us to get a broader overview of the situation and to better understand, analyse and exchange information. In Ethiopia, for example, we’ve worked with the authorities to develop global positioning systems and mechanisms for checking that water points are functioning properly.
Have you taken any other innovative steps in the last 30 years?
In Rwanda, Nepal and the Philippines, we’ve helped to install waste-treatment systems producing fuel gas that can be used for cooking in prisons. This is just one of the ways in which we have tried to mitigate the authorities’ lack of resources and have a positive impact on the environment at the same time. In emergency situations, especially acute crises, we have to be creative and innovative, as traditional solutions and standards are often not sufficient.
What led to the creation of the Water and Habitat Unit?
The decision to address water and habitat issues was taken at a time when the ICRC was working in camps for Cambodian refugees in Thailand, in the early 1980s. In addition to carrying out their usual tasks, ICRC doctors were having to take on the role of engineers and architects. Water- and sanitation-related diseases were recurrent and we knew that treatment was only going to have a very short-term impact. It became clear that we had to tackle the root causes of common illnesses relating to poor living conditions. Introducing engineers into the team relieved the burden on the doctors and noticeably improved public health. This was how there came to be an ICRC unit specially dedicated to water and habitat activities.