The outcome of the Iraq and Syria conflicts may rest on who controls the region’s dwindling water supplies, security analysts in London and Baghdad say.
Rivers, canals, dams, sewage and desalination plants are now all military targets in the semi-arid region that regularly experiences extreme water shortages, Qatar’s Royal United Services Institute think tank deputy director Michael Stephen said 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,” he said. “If you control water in Iraq, you have a grip on Baghdad and you can cause major problems. Water is essential in this conflict.”
The Islamic rebel group the Islamic State of Iraq (ISIS) now controls most of the key upper reaches of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the two great waterways that flow from Turkey in the north to the Persian Gulf in the south and on which all Iraq and much of Syria depends for food, water and industry.
“Rebel forces are targeting water installations to cut off supplies to the largely Shiite 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,” he said. “Control of the water supply is fundamentally important. Cut it off and you create great sanitation and health crises.”
ISIS now controls the Samarra barrage west of Baghdad on the Tigris River and areas around the giant Mosul Dam, higher up on the river. Because much of the Kurdistani region depends on the dam, it is strongly defended by Kurdish peshmerga forces and is unlikely to fall without a fierce fight, Machowski said.
A week ago, Iraqi troops were rushed to defend the massive 8km-long Haditha Dam and its hydroelectrical works on the Euphrates to stop it falling into the hands of ISIS forces. Were the dam to fall, analysts say the militant group would control much of Iraq’s electricity and the rebels might fatally tighten their grip on Baghdad.
Securing the Haditha Dam was one of the first objectives of the US special forces invading Iraq in 2003. The fear was that then-Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s forces could turn the structure that supplies 30 percent of the country’s electricity into a weapon of mass destruction, by opening the lock gates that control the flow of the river. Billions of gallons of water could have been released, power to the capital would have been cut off, towns and villages over hundreds of square kilometers flooded and the country would have been paralyzed.
In April, ISIS fighters in Fallujah captured the smaller Nuaimiyah Dam on the Euphrates and deliberately diverted its water to “drown” government forces in the surrounding area. Millions of people in the cities of Karbala, Najaf, Babylon and Nasiriyah had their water cut off, but the town of Abu Ghraib was catastrophically flooded, along with farms and villages more than 518km2. According to the UN, about 12,000 families lost their homes.
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 Aleppo, and ISIS forces have reportedly targeted water supplies in the refugee camps set up for internally displaced people.