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When water becomes a weapon - Interview with Dr. Ines Dombrowsky

Dr. Ines Dombrowsky has a passion for water. In her job at the German Institute of Development and Sustainability, she researches integrated and transboundary water resource management. 

You have recently published an article called “Water for peace? Peace for water in Gaza!” What role does water play in the ongoing conflict?

Dr. Ines Dombrowsky: It's a very much neglected issue in the current war in Gaza. But water is very affected by the war. One could even say that water is used as a weapon in the war. 

First, the bombardments also destroy water infrastructure, and that includes desalination plants and wastewater treatment plants.

Second, the Israeli armed forces have partly flooded some of the Hamas tunnels by seawater. That poses a huge danger to the freshwater resources in the area because they are already quite saline. And if the tunnels break and the sea water flows further into the fresh water it gets even more saline.

Third, Israel has committed itself in the mid nineties, to allocate 5 million cubic metres of water per year to Gaza through pipes.With the beginning of the war, they also stopped that water supply to Gaza. As far as I know, supplies have been resumed, but it is very difficult for outsiders to find information on the topic.

Is water the reason for wars or more of a weapon? 

We know from studying the history of conflicts that water has never really been the main cause for war. But water is being repeatedly used as a weapon in war, not only in the Gaza conflict. For instance in Ukraine, when Kakhovka dam was destroyed. 

How does climate change change the situation of water scarcity? 

Climate change makes the situation even more difficult because all over the world the variability of rainfall changes, leading to more frequent and stronger floods and droughts. Often it's also getting drier, so less water is available. But I think climate policies also affect water resources because many of our climate mitigation policies draw on water resources. If you think of biofuels, these use a lot of water, fertilisers and pesticides and thereby pollute water resources. Then we have the debate about green hydrogen, so basically producing hydrogen as a new carrier of energy, and we want to produce the hydrogen in solar rich regions, which are often the water scarce regions. So the hydrogen production is expected to increase allocation conflicts on water in these regions. 

After having understood the situation a little better: You also researched solutions. Are there any?

For instance, when we talk about climate change, fighting climate change is an important thing to ensure water availability. Then for the water scarcity conflicts, there are really many different approaches. But none of these are easy to implement.

What would be an example?

The most important supply side solution is water desalination.That has become cheaper in the last years because of technological advancements. Maybe in a big desalination plant you could produce water for 50 cents per cubic metre, which is not so much, but still more expensive than natural water. Then you also have side effects. If you run your desalination plant with fossil fuels, you fuel climate change. When you desalinate, you produce a salty brine which you have to deposit and normally that's deposited into coastal areas. There it affects biodiversity negatively. Everything comes with a cost.

Brushing teeth, flushing, water is probably everywhere in daily life and most people do not think about it a lot. What has made you so interested in water?

Because it is so essential for our life and survival. In a way, you could look at everything in society through a water lens. It was in my environmental engineering studies that I got interested in water. But I wasn't so interested in just water or wastewater treatment. I thought that the politics on water were much more interesting.

You have studied environmental engineering in the nineties. How have the politics on water changed? Back then, people were probably not that aware of climate change. 

That's true, but I would say that water was even more of a hot issue on the international agenda in the nineties.There was a lot of awareness on water, but less awareness on climate change at the time. We had the Millennium Development Goals from 2000 to 2015. There was this target on improving drinking water supply. The target has been met. I have the impression that the donors were quite satisfied with meeting that target.

Maybe then they said: OK, now we have invested so much into water resources for so many years and now we can go on to other things. Also, other issues became more prevalent, such as health through the pandemic. People are not so interested in reaching the next goals of the SDGs anymore for 2030. The geopolitical situation has changed very much in the last 10 years. It has become more difficult to mobilise multilateral action for these things than it used to be. It is also a bit of a negative feedback loop. We see that we are not reaching the goals, that they are too ambitious. Maybe then one is already giving up psychologically, before even trying.

Anna Abraham


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