In recent years the number of conflicts conducted in urban areas has dramatically increased. We only have to remind ourselves of Beirut (Lebanon), the Gulf war and the war on Iraq, the war for the control of Aden in Yemen and for the control of towns like Kabul (Afghanistan), Monrovia (Liberia), Kigali (Rwanda), Mogadishu (Somalia) and, closer to us, the towns of former Yugoslavia and more recently the war on Gaza.
Generally speaking, conflicts are being increasingly conducted in urban areas not only because the political and economical powers are located within capitals, but also because all over the world people are migrating from the countryside to the urban areas, mainly for economical reasons but also because they may feel more safe.
The damage inflicted to the infrastructure by the ways war is conducted is far more important than in rural areas, simply because the installations are technically more complex and vulnerable. One of the main problems is due to the interruption of the supply of electricity, and water shortages resulting form lack of power are common in today’s conflicts, Back-up power generators are not sufficient to cope with the outages and, when fuel is available, they do quick lack of spare parts and maintenance. Whole areas are often reduced to the level of pre-industrial societies and turned to a breeding ground for epidemics, with wastewater flooding entire suburbs, increasing the risk of cross contamination of the water still supplied through the network.
As the density of people is important, the number of people affected by diseases related to a poor water supply or by a total lack of drinking water is likely to increase during the troubled periods and may reach epidemic proportions. The difficulty of the tasks has triggered an evolution of the competences of the engineers involved in humanitarian relief, shifting from a relatively simple technology developed to care for informal “towns”, as the refugees camps often are, to interventions in complex installations like power plants, water treatment stations, etc. in partnership with local water boards or contractors, without whom nothing is possible. If damage to the infrastructure can be addressed, the human resources of the utilities are also badly affected during the conflicts and one of the tasks of the International Humanitarian
Organisations (IHO) and of the Non Governmental Organisations (NGOs) is also to rebuild or strengthen their operational capacity in order to help them to cope with the more dire needs. In the situations described hereunder the author has tried to collect as much data as possible, knowing that in general, this is not the first priority for the engineers involved in complex emergencies. However, only data do allow to plan and to show that priorities must be changed, as the situations are evolving rapidly to a point that objectives set at the beginning of the operations are often obsolete after a few weeks.