ISTANBUL (AFP) - The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) urged the international community Sunday to protect crucial water and sanitation systems during wartime ahead of an international forum here on water and the management of scarce sources. "Water, sewage and electrical power systems, along with medical facilities, are usually the first things to be disrupted when a war breaks out," Robert Mardini, head of the ICRC's water and habitat unit, said in a written statement. The breakdown of the systems are often followed by "massive shortages and by rapidly spreading disease that can result in loss of life," Mardini underlined, citing Iraq, the Gaza Strip, Sri Lanka and Somalia as examples where armed conflict has disrupted water supplies. Roughly a quarter of the estimated 1.2 billion people unable to obtain clean drinking water, and 15 percent of the 2.6 billion without access to proper sanitation, are in war-torn countries, he said. "The ICRC aims to use the World Water Forum to put this issue higher up the international agenda and to remind governments of their responsibilities in this respect," Mardini said. The Fifth World Water Forum opens in Istanbul Monday, bringing together an expected 20,000 people from 107 countries, among them government officials, business people and civic groups, who will discuss themes associated with water until March 22. Politicians, corporate executives, engineers and greens gather in Istanbul for the week-long arena aimed at tackling the planet's fast-growing water crisis. Around 20,000 people are expected for the Fifth World Water Forum in the Turkish city of Istanbul, where a charged agenda awaits them. Access to clean water and sanitation, river pollution, madcap extraction of aquifers, jockeying for water rights and the impact of climate change have turned the stuff of life into a fiercely contentious issue. The Forum, held only every three years, has been foreshadowed by a report issued by a constellation of UN agencies. In 348 pages, their document, published last Thursday, warned of a triple whammy in which supplies of freshwater were being viciously squeezed by demographic pressure, waste and drought. It spoke of a "global water crisis" with plenty of potential for instability and conflict. Loic Fauchon, head of the World Water Council which is organising the Istanbul meeting, said the facts amounted to a glaring message that times have changed. "The era of easy water is over. We have to embark on policies for regulating demand," Fauchon said in Paris last week. "Over the last 50 years, water policies around the world have focused on providing ever more water. Absolutely no thought was given to water consumption, which has reached shameless proportions in some countries." He added: "All of us, around the world, have to ask questions about our relationship with water and work to use less of it." Hydrologists point to some notorious acts of water vandalism over the last century. They include the desiccation of the Aral Sea, once the world's fourth largest inland lake, by Soviet-era plans to grow cotton in the central Asian desert. Less visible, but also massively destructive, is over-irrigation, in which water is used to grow thirsty crops in scorching climates and soils that are naturally parched. California's Imperial Valley and Australia's Murray-Darling river system are often cited for such waste. Water scarcity has the potential to stoke unrest, frictions within countries and conflicts between states, according to the UN document, the Third World Water Development Report. "Conflicts about water can occur at all scales," the report warned. "Hydrologic shocks that may occur through climate change increase the risk of major national and international security threats, especially in unstable areas." One objective of the Istanbul meeting is to develop ways of avoiding these feared "water wars" by encouraging agreements on sharing the use of rivers, lakes and aquifers that straddle boundaries.