Is the “Taboo” of Using Water as a Weapon Broken?


The Kakhovka Dam and Electric Plant were destroyed recently in the Russia-Ukraine conflict leading to the flooding of various regions on both sides.

In the annals of human history, water has often been deployed as a potent weapon during the times of conflict. From poisoning of water sources to diverting rivers, combatants have used water as a means to gain strategic advantages. However, the post-World War II era witnessed a noticeable change in attitudes toward the use of water as a weapon.

As countries engaged in international disputes resolution, they began exhibiting a collective determination to eschew the weaponization of water which included destroying dams to flood the civilian and military area or using chemicals to make water unfit for large population. This marked departure has been referred to by Charlotte Grech-Madin as the “water taboo“- a term that mirrors the enduring “nuclear taboo” elucidated by Nina Tannenwald, which has effectively established the norms against the use of nukes since the conclusion of World War II.

The “water taboo” captures the growing moral aversion towards the weaponization of water among states. This normative shift could be attributed to various factors, evolving legal frameworks, heightened awareness of environmental impacts, and the recognition of water as a vital resource for human survival and development.

The British Royal Airforce dam busters raid on Germany in World War 2 (Operation Chastise) was the last official recorded destruction of dams during the time of war in which six dams were selected to be breached to impact the German infrastructure and manufacturing capabilities. So the current destruction of the Nova Kakhovka dam on the Dnipro River raises questions surrounding the effectiveness of norms of “water taboo.”

Under Article 56 of 1977 Additional Protocol 1 (AP 1) amendment to the Geneva Conventions, dams may not be lawfully attacked “if such attack may cause the release of dangerous forces from the works or installations and consequent severe losses among the civilian populations” unless “it is used for other than its normal function and in regular, significant support of military operations and if such attacks are the only feasible way to terminate such support”. Since the Kakhovka dam is under the control of Russians, it is not possible to prove who destroyed the facility till the war is ongoing.

For now, both Russia and Ukraine have shifted blame-game on one another for destroying the dam. In fact, there is very little evidence to blame either side, what is, however, clearer is that this unprecedented destruction of the dam may open Pandora’s box in future conflicts. As the weaponization of water as a standard can lead to problems including ecological consequences, including contamination, scarcity, and long-term damage to ecosystems. The recognition of these environmental ramifications has played a significant role in fostering the “water taboo.” Today countries are increasingly enabling water interdependence between them in order to cater to sustainable development and ecological balance. Therefore, any realization of weaponization of water will undermine not just their adversaries but also the global society at large.

The current crisis in Ukraine, due to destruction of dam could escalate crisis on water front, with further push against “water taboo”. Recent border clashes surrounding the water sharing of the Helmund River between Iran and Afghanistan is concerning. While other issues like the construction of a dam on the Nile River in Ethiopia which is raging tensions between Egypt and Ethiopia, the Indus water treaty between India and Pakistan which is on hold, and China’s ambitious dam project on the Brahmaputra (Yarlung Tsangpo) river near Arunachal Pradesh (India) exemplify the complex web of environmental, geopolitical, and security concerns arising from water scarcity.

The Ukraine-Russia water conflict, marked by Ukraine’s accusations of deliberate dam destruction, presents a disconcerting scenario with serious implications for global norms and future conflicts. While the lack of concrete evidence poses a considerable challenge, the international community must closely monitor the situation and address it with utmost seriousness.

If it is proven that Russia engaged in such actions or if Ukraine self-sabotaged the dam to gain international sympathy against Russian invasion, the erosion of the “water taboo” would necessitate the establishment of new norms to avert the weaponization of water and mitigate the potential ramifications for global stability. This also necessitates that international system should develop a mechanism which ensures that such escalations does not take place. Swift action, thorough investigations, and international cooperation are crucial in addressing this incident and ensuring that water remains a safeguarded resource rather than a tool of destruction.

Kartike Garg
Kartike Garg
I'm a post graduate student of international relations and area studies at School of international studies, jawaharlal nehru University, New Delhi, India. My area of interest lies in Indian foreign policy, soft power, norms building, and strategic thinking.