Rivers, canals, dams, sewage and desalination plants are now all military targets in the semi-arid region that regularly experiences extreme water shortages, says Michael Stephen, deputy director of the Royal United Services Institute think-tank in Qatar, speaking from Baghdad.
“Control of water supplies gives strategic control over both cities and countryside. We are seeing a battle for control of water. Water is now the major strategic objective of all groups in Iraq. It’s life or death. If you control water in Iraq you have a grip on Baghdad, and you can cause major problems. Water is essential in this conflict,” he said.
Isis (the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) –now known as the Islamic State (IS) – rebels now control most of the key upper reaches of the Tigris and the Euphrates, the two great rivers that flow from Turkey in the north to the Persian Gulf in the south, and on which all of Iraq and much of Syria depend for food, water and industry.
“Rebel forces are targeting water installations to cut off supplies to the largely Shia south of Iraq,” said Matthew Machowski, a Middle East security researcher at the British houses of Parliament and Queen Mary University of London.
“It is already being used as an instrument of war by all sides. One could claim that controlling water resources in Iraq is even more important than controlling the oil refineries, especially in summer. Control of the water supply is fundamentally important. Cut it off and you create great sanitation and health crises,” said Machowski.
IS now controls the Samarra barrage west of Baghdad on the River Tigris and areas around the giant Mosul Dam, higher up on the river. Because much of Kurdistan depends on the dam, it is strongly defended by Kurdish peshmerga forces and is unlikely to fall without a fierce fight, said Machowski.
Last week Iraqi troops were rushed to defend the massive 8km-long Haditha Dam and its hydroelectric works on the Euphrates to stop it falling into the hands of IS forces. Were the dam to fall, say analysts, IS would control much of Iraq’s electricity and the rebels might fatally tighten their grip on Baghdad.
In April, IS fighters in Fallujah captured the smaller Nuaimiyah Dam on the Euphrates and diverted its water to “drown” government forces in the area. Millions of people in the cities of Karbala, Najaf, Babylon and Nasiriyah had their water cut off and Abu Ghraib town was catastrophically flooded.
Earlier this year Kurdish forces reportedly diverted water supplies from the Mosul Dam. Equally, Turkey has been accused of reducing flows to the giant Lake Assad, Syria’s largest body of fresh water, to cut off supplies to the city of Aleppo.
Iraqis fled from Mosul after the IS cut off power and water.
“When they restored water supplies to Mosul, the Sunnis saw it as liberation. Control of water resources in the Mosul area is one reason why people returned,” said Machowski.
Increasing temperatures, one of the longest and most severe droughts in 50 years and the steady drying up of farmland as rainfall diminishes have been identified as factors in the political destabilisation of Syria.
Both IS forces and President Bashar al-Assad’s army have used water tactics to control Aleppo. The Tishrin Dam on the Euphrates, 96km east of the city, was captured by the IS in November 2012.
Nouar Shamout, a researcher with the independent policy institute Chatham House, said: “Syria’s essential services are on the brink of collapse under the burden of continuous assault on critical water infrastructure.
“The stranglehold of IS, neglect by the regime, and an eighth summer of drought may … create a water and food crisis which would escalate fatalities and migration rates in the … three-year conflict,” said Shamout.
“The deliberate targeting of water supply networks … is now a daily occurrence in the conflict. The water pumping station in Al-Khafsah, Aleppo, stopped working on May 10, cutting off supply to half of the city.
“It is unclear who was responsible; both the regime and opposition forces blame each other but, unsurprisingly, in a city home to almost three million people, the incident caused panic and chaos. Some people even resorted to drinking from puddles in the streets,” he said. – Guardian News & Media 2014