ISIS and the Water Crisis in the Middle East

Iraq Kurdistan Mosul and Erbil

by Victoria Haykin

In the shadow of the devastation caused by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) – the summary executions, the hostage taking and the beheadings currently terrorizing the Arab region – looms another threat, potentially even more crippling. Since last winter, Iraq and Syria have been plagued by drought caused by climate change, combined with water shortages that have recently become yet another weapon in the ISIS arsenal. Although nearly invisible in the press, the problem is endemic and unless action is taken soon, the water crisis could spiral out of control.

The water crisis in the Middle East began last winter when Syria and Iraq were hit by crippling drought. In neighboring Turkey, which is a naturally water-rich country and home to the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, precipitation was also far below the normal seasonal percentage. For the last two decades, the area has experienced some of the driest winters to date. Studies show that one of the main reasons for the crisis is anthropogenic climate change. Moreover, the speed with which the region’s climate continues to change is rapidly forcing politicians and policy makers alike to reconsider how they view political destabilization in the Middle East.

Since early April 2014, ISIS has been actively exploiting natural resources to gain a foothold in Syria and Iraq. In Iraq, ISIS fighters exacerbated the severity of the drought by seizing control of the Falujah Dam on the Euphrates River. The significant flooding that resulted overwhelmed Iraqi troops seeking to displace ISIS from the region. The tidal waves also flooded crops, washed away livestock and local residences, affecting approximately 40,000 people.

In August, ISIS took control of the Mosul Dam, which blocks access to the Tigris River. As a result, numerous Iraqi towns experienced flooding, water shortages and disruptions of electricity. Twelve days after the Mosul Dam was taken, Kurdish militia, aided by American and Iraqi airstrikes, reclaimed it. Nevertheless, ISIS has more recently cut off the water supply to the village of Balad Ruz and continues its policy of drowning towns that refuse to meet its demands. The lack of water in this region now threatens the viability of oil production, which requires 1.8 billion cubic meters of water per annum.

ISIS is also playing its cards on Iraq’s water supply shortages: since 2012 the UN has considered Iraq to be the country most vulnerable to climate change in the Arab region. Unlike its neighbor Syria, Iraq has more potable water available per person. But the fact of the matter is, surface water resources are dwindling, and Iraq’s dependence on water reserves outside of its borders will make it increasingly vulnerable to climate change in the coming years. Like Syria, disastrous, long-lasting droughts coupled with the widespread migration of agricultural workers seeking gainful employment will serve only to intensify the gravity of the situation.

In Syria, ISIS has claimed ar-Raqqah as its capital city, located on the historic crossroads of Syria and Iraq and only 25 kilometers east of Syria’s largest dam. There, they have continued their policy of “water wars” by diverting Lake Assad toward the Iraqi border in order to threaten Iraqi forces. Typical for regions experiencing a shortage of water for drinking and irrigation, “water wars” are conflicts that have become commonplace over the last two decades. By trying to engage Iraqis in such a conflict, ISIS is drying up a lake that provides water to more than five million people. Naturally, this has forced the people residing in the area to draw drinking water from reservoirs which are unfit for human consumption.

By using such methods in Syria, ISIS is worsening an already worrisome situation resulting from climate change. By the end of Syria’s last severe drought, which lasted from 2006 until 2010, more than one million farmers had relocated to urbanized areas, already largely overpopulated, in the hopes of securing employment outside of the agricultural sector. According to a New York Times op-ed piece by Thomas Friedman, climate change, rising poverty rates, and the Syrian uprising, which began in early 2011 in response to government corruption and human rights violations, are intimately interconnected. Prolonged civil strife in the region will serve only to fast track the ecological deterioration.

According to local NGO officials, the only hope for resolution lies with Turkey who, under the aegis of the World Bank, has until very recently been restricting the region’s water supply. In light of recent events, however, Turkey has still done little to remedy the situation. The Turks are adamant that the water reserves belong to them and have gone so far as to cut water to Syria in an attempt to keep the Syrians from supporting the Kurds. Local Iraqi and Syrian politicians have likewise done little to remedy the situation. They have, for quite some time now, failed to step in as Turkey and Iran have expedited their own dam-building programs.

Without any sense of unity in the Arab region, it is unlikely these environmental and humanitarian crises can soon be remedied. The ramifications of climate change and the water-wars in Iraq and Syria are just two exemplars of crises that will surely become commonplace throughout the globe if a sustainable, democratically motivated water policy is not developed and pollution levels continue to rise unchecked.

Scholars and journalists alike are already heralding water as the “new oil.” In truth, water is far more precious than oil. Unlike oil, water has no close substitute and is necessary for the preservation of life on earth. Water is also heavier than oil and extremely difficult to transport far distances. If the global need for clean drinking water eventually outstrips the desire for oil, it is inevitable that countries with access to water reserves will yield overwhelming political power and influence.

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