Urban conflict is forcing millions of people to leave their homes, contributing to record numbers of refugees and internally displaced persons. When weapons are used in populated areas, around 90 percent of those killed are bystanders. Many survivors face lifelong disabilities and severe psychological trauma. Water, electricity and sanitation infrastructure is often damaged and healthcare is severely compromised.
More than 50 million people are currently affected by conflict in urban areas. They are exposed to a number of different dangers. When hostilities take place in cities, civilians are at much higher risk of being killed or injured. In some cases, they can be confused with combatants. In other cases, harm to civilians is often fully predictable, but parties to the conflict take no action to avoid or minimize it. For example, numerous schools and health facilities were damaged during fighting in the Gaza Strip last year. Nearly 800,000 people lacked access to tap water, increasing the risk of disease and further hampering health care. In Afghanistan, a bomb attack outside a high school in Kabul last May killed 90 students, mostly girls, and wounded another 240 people.
Aside from the immediate pain and suffering, the indirect effects of damage to schools range from disruptions in education to an increased likelihood of early marriage and recruitment into armed groups. Conflicts in urban areas go far beyond their immediate impact on civilian populations. They also expose people to the risk of sieges and blockades, which have terrible effects on civilians, including starvation. Unexploded ordnance (UXO) makes it too dangerous for people to return home. And the mass destruction in urban areas is setting development back decades and undermining progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals.
School in Sa'ada destroyed by air strike. Credit: OCHA / Philippe Kropf