Water summit eclipsed by war

Anti-war protesters at the water summit in Kyoto demonstrate against an Iraqi war (

An international summit on water has been overshadowed by the launch of United States-led military action in Iraq.

This content was published on March 20, 2003 - 17:35

But delegates meeting in Kyoto, Japan, warned of the consequences if the US targets Iraq's energy and water installations.

Hours after President Bush confirmed the start of a military campaign to oust the Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein, representatives from non-governmental organisations staged vocal anti-war protests outside the conference centre.

The groups are in Kyoto to push for the international acceptance of water as a basic human right.

Walter Fust, the director of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), has cancelled plans to represent Switzerland at the two-day ministerial summit in Kyoto this weekend, electing to remain in Bern to monitor the humanitarian situation in Iraq.

The summit is due to wrap up with a ministerial declaration on Sunday, which is slated to include concrete proposals for meeting international targets to preserve and manage the world's water supply.

But with the Iraqi delegation in Kyoto summoned home earlier in the week, many delegates fear that war in the Gulf is likely to hamper the conference's agenda.

War and water

Joining Philippe Roch, the director of the Swiss Environment Agency, at the negotiating table in Kyoto will be Fust's assistant director-general at the SDC, Dora Rapold.

"I don't know what the US military strategy is going to be," Rapold told swissinfo, "but if they cut access to drinking water, people cannot survive without it. I hope this will not be the case."

In an earlier interview with swissinfo, Swiss military strategist, Albert Stahel, said Iraq's water supply was likely to be disrupted as part of US efforts to flush out Saddam and those members of the elite Republican Guard who remain loyal to him.

"By targeting power stations, they [would] also destroy the water supply for Saddam's forces as well as for the population as a whole, and there will be a movement [of people] out of Baghdad, which means there will be chaos," Stahel said.

In a televised address from the White House late on Wednesday night, Bush said Washington's military campaign would make every effort to avoid civilian casualties.

Humanitarian crisis?

International aid organisations have been preparing for months to deal with the humanitarian consequences of a military strike against Iraq. But Rapold believes they may be underestimating the scale of a potential catastrophe.

"Many aid agencies, particularly the UNHCR, have prepared camps for refugees - probably not enough - and one of their tasks will be providing access to water," she said.

"We recently held a humanitarian conference [in Geneva]... and a lot of preparations have been made.

"But there is also the fear that there are many more refugees than they are prepared for at the border regions, so that will be an immense challenge."

Rapid response team

Walter Stoessel, an official at the SDC and member of the Swiss delegation in Kyoto, says Switzerland has a rapid response team on standby, which is ready to be dispatched to the Gulf region if needed.

The team is made up of Swiss humanitarian aid specialists, a number of whom would be charged with the task of ensuring as many Iraqi refugees as possible have access to clean drinking water and adequate sanitation.

The SDC also announced it was releasing an extra SFr120,000 in emergency funds as part of its contribution to international relief efforts in the region.

swissinfo, Ramsey Zarifeh in Kyoto

In brief

Organisers of the World Water Forum in Kyoto have vowed not to cancel a key ministerial summit this weekend, despite the launch of a US military strike in Iraq.

Anti-war protesters demonstrated against a war in Iraq outside the main conference centre.

Inside, delegates discussed ways of making good on international promises to preserve and manage the world's water supply.

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