September 05, 2014

Islamic State will use water as weapon in Iraq, Syria

The Oxford Analytica Daily Brief ® - Tuesday, September 2 2014

The US airforce carried out three airstrikes on Islamic State group militants near Mosul Dam yesterday. The dramatic advances made by the group this year have grave implications for the water resources of Syria and Iraq. Large swathes of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers have fallen under the group's control in 2014. Beyond the direct humanitarian and food security implications, this development raises the prospect of the group using water resources as a weapon in the conflict.


Water scarcity is a perennial problem in the Middle East, particularly given the region's population growth. Annual renewable internal freshwater resources per capita are 1,108 cubic meters in Iraq and 325 cubic meters in Syria:

Syria. Prior to the conflict, a combination of drought and the regime's poor agricultural policies resulted in massive rural-to-urban migration, putting pressure on the country's aging water infrastructure.
Iraq. Dwindling surface water availability from Turkey and Syria's dam construction put more pressure on the country's water resources.
Sharing scare resources

The Tigris and Euphrates Rivers originate in mountainous eastern Turkey, flowing into Syria and Iraq and emptying into the Arabic-Persian Gulf. The three states have oscillated between conflict and cooperation with each other since 1975. Upstream Turkey, which dams the effluent for hydroelectric purposes, dominates this dynamic. By the time the water reaches Iraq, the Euphrates flows at less than a third of its natural volume (see MIDDLE EAST: Water crisis looms in absence of reforms - February 28, 2013).

What next

The Islamic State group's territorial gains have placed Shia-dominated southern Iraq at the bottom of the water hierarchy. The group now has the capability to withhold water resources, curb economic activity and disrupt electricity and communications through selective allocation of hydroelectric power from captured dams. The risk of dam rupture has also increased, which would result in the flooding of populated areas and agricultural lands.

New regional dynamics

Syria's fragmentation and the federal government crisis in Baghdad mean that both states' capacity to pressure their upstream neighbours has diminished considerably.

In addition, the advances made by the Islamic State group's state-building enterprise in Syria and Iraq since the start of 2014 have turned it into a new riparian actor in the region, adding a further difficulty to the historically complicated water-sharing relationship between Turkey, Syria and Iraq.


The group now controls:

all 710 kilometers of the Euphrates in Syria; significant sections of the river in Iraq, from Qaim to Haditha, and from Fallujah to the north of Karbala; and the Tigris from south of Mosul to just south of Tikrit. Water as a weapon

Control of these resources gives Islamic State the ability to withhold water resources from communities downstream. It has already begun to leverage this new power:

Ilamic State flooded land upstream from the Fallujah Dam in April, reducing water levels in Iraq's southern provinces and putting pressure on Iraqi security forces' siege and attempts to liberate the city.
Accounts from inside eastern Syria indicate that Ilamic State has withheld water to restrict electricity production downstream and assert control over newly conquered areas, as well as to consolidate populations by making rural life unlivable.
In June and July, local media reported that Euphrates flows into Syria had been cut by Turkey, de facto depriving Iraq of its water share, although other sources contended that Islamic State was responsible.
The group's Sunni-supremacist, anti-Shia ideology means that it could seek to use water as a weapon against the predominantly Shia areas downstream. Manufactured water scarcity was a tactic similarly used by Saddam Hussein during his regime as a mechanism to oppress the Shia population.

Southern Iraq relies on upstream dams for irrigation

Southern Iraq is now in a position of heightened water and food insecurity. Most of Iraq's cultivated area south of Baghdad is under major irrigation and relies on the operation of upstream dams.

Water mismanagement

Another key risk to Iraq and Syria's water resources stems from the potential for mismanagement of dams along the Tigris and Euphrates.

Dam management is a technical affair and requires trained engineers to both operate and maintain the dam infrastructure. Iraqi infrastructure is also highly reliant on foreign aid to cover rehabilitation costs post-war. The Mosul Dam, Iraq's largest hydraulic infrastructure, poses particular concerns as it is built on a water-soluable foundation that requires constant re-grouting, a process that stopped when Islamic State temporarily took control of the dam in early August.
Click on this graphic for a larger image
Flooding risk

Rupture of the dam, either deliberately or from mismanagement, would cause major flooding of populated areas and agricultural lands and result in massive loss of life and property. According to a 2006 report from the Office of the Special Inspector for Iraq Reconstruction, cited by local media, its rupture would release a 65-foot wave that would destroy Mosul with floodwaters potentially reaching as far as Baghdad.

Given that Islamic State's de facto capital Mosul and Sunni-majority areas would flood before reaching Baghdad, the group would be unlikely to destroy the dam deliberately.

Strategic targets

To protect against such risks, last month's US airstrikes concentrated on supporting Iraqi fighters' operation to retake the dam (see IRAQ: Counter-offensive will limit threat to KRG - August 11, 2014). As a result Islamic State has lost control of the primary source of water for Baghdad and the southern agricultural area, meaning they are no longer in the position to manufacture widespread drought along the Tigris.

US intervention has concentrated on Mosul Dam

However, it retains control of the Fallujah Dam, which it has held since February, and is seeking to take control of the Haditha dam, both in western Iraq.

Islamic State control of Haditha dam (the country's second largest) could have similar destructive consequences to that involving the Mosul dam. It controls water along the Euphrates agricultural area and forms Lake Qadisiyah -- a rupture would result in flooding, water rationing problems for irrigation and loss of life.

Energy supplies

Islamic State's water control has the capability to disrupt several services integral to economic activity.

Hydropower accounts for about 9% of Iraq's electricity generation capacity. However, given the preponderance of energy generated by petroleum (nearly 90% of Iraq's energy needs), the impact of hydroelectric power uncertainty will most acutely affect localities:

Northern Iraq, particularly Mosul, where hydropower constitutes a significant portion of the electricity budget.
The capture of Haditha dam would be particularly problematic as it supplies part of Baghdad's electrical power.
Knock-on effects such as communications disruptions from lack of electricity would also ensue.

No comments: