Urban services during protracted armed conflict

October 2, 2015
Jean Philippe Dross, Michael Talhami, Evaristo de Pinho Oliveira, Javier Cordoba (ICRC); Dr. Mark Zeitoun (University of East Anglia).
Palestinian children look out of a window of their family home in Gaza.


This article summarises an ICRC report arguing for changing conventional humanitarian and development approaches to maintaining urban services throughout protracted armed conflict. Our experience addressing the challenges of maintaining water, sanitation, electricity, solid waste and other public services tells us that their underlying causes receive insufficient attention. Using short-term emergency responses, even the symptoms of these challenges are difficult to deal with. Addressing these challenges is all the more difficult when the complexity inherent in urban contexts is compounded by repeated cycles of armed conflict, international sanctions and/or other restrictions on importing goods.

Work in cities in Iraq and Gaza has shown that it is possible – though not ideal – to actively shift between development and emergency programming. Ensuring programming remains cost-effective, accountably-run and relevant over decades is another matter entirely however. Some of our report’s proposals for ensuring interventions in contexts characterized by armed conflict and/or trade sanctions are effective are listed below, with the reasoning provided afterwards.

a) re-conceptualisation of the relief-rehabilitation-development paradigm;
b) adaptation of donor funding mechanisms;
c) further development of actors’ technical and planning capacity to meet the infrastructural needs in urban areas; and
d) reinforcement of efforts to strengthen compliance with international humanitarian law (IHL).

Smoke billows out of the Republican Palace during an air strike in southern Yemen (Taiz, 17 April 2015). Explosives used in populated areas have an indirect, cumulative impact on urban services beyond direct collateral damage.
Smoke billows out of the Republican Palace during an air strike in southern Yemen (Taiz, 17 April 2015). Explosives used in populated areas have an indirect, cumulative impact on urban services beyond direct collateral damage.

Complex and interdependent urban services

Currently, some 50 million people worldwide are affected by armed conflict in urban areas, with knock-on effects that go far beyond the visible signs of destruction. Most of these people are more dependent on essential services than their rural compatriots, making them more vulnerable to service disruptions.

Uncertainty about the timing and nature of violence, and the complicated social and infrastructure networks in urban areas, make providing services in these settings complex, to say the least. Active combat, even if distant, can have a dramatic effect on urban dwellers. For example, an attack on an electrical power generator, supply road, or water treatment plant can displace people into urban areas, further increasing pressure on services.

Services can come under a variety of strains as any of the three components of a service can be compromised: people (especially operations and maintenance staff), hardware (e.g. infrastructure, equipment), or consumables (e.g. fuel, chlorine, medicine). No one component is sufficient on its own; it is pointless having spare parts if the only staff able to install them have fled the fighting or do not have safe access. As some components are located beyond the city limits, we propose a more pragmatic definition of ’urban’: the area within which civilians vulnerable to disruptions in essential services reside and the network of components supporting those services.

Urban services are also interdependent. For instance, a damaged electrical transformer can immediately shut down the water supply to an entire neighbourhood or hospital, which will in turn negatively impact public health. The set of skills and planning capabilities required to best address such interconnectivity is often beyond the scope of humanitarian operations.

Cumulative impact creates ‘vicious cycles’

Armed conflict can impact any or all of the components of a service either directly, e.g. a reservoir pierced by a tank shell or shortages caused by trade sanctions, or indirectly, e.g. insecurity can prevent staff from gaining safe access, curtailing the maintenance required to keep a power supply system operational in the long run. These direct and indirect impacts are cumulative, making them more difficult to address, and as they became progressively worse, so does life for residents.

Figure 1. Charting the deterioration in the quality of services, and increasing impact on residents, in urban contexts as a result of protracted armed conflict and/or sanctions. Modelled on IFRC, 2012:


In the worst of cases, ’vicious cycles’ may arise, as in the case of drinking water exemplified in Figure 2. The cycle is driven by the accumulation of direct and indirect impact (via people, hardware and/or consumables). By combining and accumulating in these ways, the impact may ultimately lead to increased disparity in quality of services, and greater spread of communicable diseases. Such degradation can exacerbate existing social tensions, and may contribute to the very conflict which created it.

Figure 2. The vicious cycle of cumulative impact on urban services (exemplified by drinking water services). The cycle is influenced by direct and indirect impact (via people, hardware and consumables). The accumulation ultimately affects public health and may contribute to the very conflict which created it. Based on cases documented in Dushanbe, Tajikistan (Roberts 2000) and several Afghan cities (Pinera 2011).


If services deteriorate beyond a certain point, classic interventions will not prevent a slide into a condition that is too difficult or expensive to reverse. The classic humanitarian response (say, water-trucking, or ad-hoc borehole drilling) is often too focused on immediate needs to incorporate such medium or long-term considerations. Avoiding such cycles is often beyond the limits of most humanitarian assistance, due to constraints in programming, funding and internal technical or logistical capacity.

Under IHL, each of the three components of any essential service – people, hardware, and consumables – is covered by the general protection afforded to civilians and civilian objects. In addition, certain civilians, such as medical personnel, and civilian objects, such as water reservoirs, benefit from special protection.

Despite this protection, there are several key challenges that partly arise from a lack of respect for IHL in some contexts, as well as from the type of weaponry used in urban areas. One such challenge is that IHL includes object-specific protection and does not expressly acknowledge the interconnectivity or the increasing complexity, and thus vulnerability, of essential services in urban areas. This interconnectivity can and ought to be taken into account through the rules of proportionality and precautions in attack. Running and maintaining urban services in protracted armed conflicts requires taking advantage of opportunities to not only secure greater respect of IHL but also mitigate the effects of explosive weapons.

Plotting the change in course

To summarise, effective humanitarian approaches in urban areas caught up in protracted conflict must address:

(a) the large scale of the challenge;
(b) the duration of the challenge;
(c) the multifaceted interconnectivity of essential services;
(d) the cumulative effects of direct and indirect impacts;
(e) challenges faced as a result of lack of respect for the rules of IHL;
(f) the need to rethink the relief-rehabilitation-development spectrum; and
(g) funding that does not match the duration or scale of the needs.

The full report details how effective approaches will also have to incorporate the politics of a highly securitized operating environment, which makes good relationships with local actors, such as municipal service providers, even more crucial. The report also details how greater evidence and analysis related to specific thematic issues (e.g. public health, IHL, funding, operations) take priority.

The relief-rehabilitation-development paradigm is particularly constraining, when it comes to protracted armed conflicts that play out in urban areas. The paradigm constricts planning by limiting our thinking to stand-alone technical “relief”-type interventions, used in camps and rural areas. In many protracted urban conflicts, such interventions are incorrectly seen as the first steps in bridging the artificial fissure between conflict contexts and development contexts, and can be quite far removed from people’s needs.

We thus encourage greater discussion around calls for change from many different perspectives, See e.g. McElhenney (2014), DFID (2014), and Wild et al (2015).  and efforts to clear the obstacles that have prevented more effective programming for far too long. In suggesting a way forward, the report identifies what is required to best address the challenges related to this paradigm. It also outlines how to ensure the right response in the right place at the right time.

Inevitably, the path to a better approach requires further discussion both within and beyond the humanitarian sector. We may start along that path by making efforts to link relief, rehabilitation and transitional development assistance, but the ideas must be taken further, and converted into action, earlier.

The next steps for local and international implementing agencies are clear. Firstly, multi-year planning and programming is needed to address the severity and complexity of the challenge. Secondly, reporting structures should be modified to enable collection not only of evidence of direct impact but of indirect and cumulative impacts as well. Thirdly, agencies’ evaluations should include assessments of how well their programming supports local coping mechanisms, which, as the full report details, can be ingenious for some but dangerous to others. Finally, we all have to improve our logistical and technical capacity.

Donors should ensure funding modalities match the scale and duration of the challenge. See e.g. Bayne and Buckley (2014).  Interventions will be much more expensive and take far longer if aid agencies and local service providers are unable to prevent or mitigate the consequences of cumulative impacts. This is particularly crucial because prolonged exposure to degraded urban services increases serious public health risks.

The course ahead must ultimately lead to programming that pre-empts the vicious cycle of cumulative impact, enabling local and international humanitarian and development actors to maintain urban public services during protracted armed conflict. Dominant rural-urban or relief-development distinctions must be left behind. Instead, we must move towards improved protection by IHL and, operational and funding models that are more fit-for-purpose. If we are to be of use to the millions affected by long urban wars, let us embark on that course now.

Jean Philippe Dross, Michael Talhami, Evaristo de Pinho Oliveira, Javier Cordoba are with the International Committee of the Red Cross. Dr. Mark Zeitoun is with the Water Security Research Centre, University of East Anglia.



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