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USHS Blog

30 November 2015

ISIS’s Water Wars and the Land of Two Rivers

When looking at the situation in Iraq and Syria today, a clear relation between water, power and security can be discerned. By extending its control over the course of the Euphrates and the Tigris, ISIS expands its influence within the territory of what was once called Mesopotamia: the Land of Two Rivers. Though water might not be a trigger of war, history does provide ample evidence that water may be used as an instrument of war. Whether ISIS will be able to use this instrument to the last drop in the future, depends in large part on another regional player.

ANBAR, Iraq (Dec. 3, 2008) U.S. marines transferring control of the Haditha Dam back to the Iraqi people. (Wikipedia.org)

Mapping a Meandering Stronghold

One only has to cast a glance at the military maps of Syria and Iraq and it swiftly becomes clear that the ‘Islamic State’ is organizing its caliphate around the most important rivers in the region. The Euphrates and the Tigris seem to constitute a meandering stronghold of the salafist Jihadists. As ISIS marched into Syria in 2012 its fighters took control of all dams along the Euphrates within a couple of months. This included the largest dam in Syria, the Tabqa Dam, and the adjacent Lake Assad (Syria’s largest water reservoir). More recently ISIS applied the same strategy in Iraq, albeit in a less successful manner. In the summer of 2014 Iraqi and Kurdish military forces, backed by intensive US air raids, prevented ISIS from taking the Mosul Dam on the Tigris. This dam controls the water supply of 6 million Iraqis and generates a significant part of Mosul’s electricity supply. One month later, the Iraqi army, again backed by the US air force, successfully conquered ISIS forces trying to capture the Haditha Dam on the Euphrates. However, in April 2014 and in May 2015 ISIS gained control over two other Iraqi dams: the Falluyah Barrage and the Ramadi Dam respectively – both are situated only a hundred kilometers from Baghdad.

Military maps of Syria and Iraq, by Thomas van Linge, updated 16-11-2015,

Weapons of Mass Destruction?

The threatening notion that ISIS could turn the Mosul and Haditha dams into weapons of mass destruction, potentially flooding hundreds of square kilometers and cutting off the electricity supply to cities like Mosul and Baghdad, was the main reason for the United States to intervene and assist Kurdish and Iraqi forces with air strikes. Control over dams and water distribution provide ISIS with an instrument to suppress the local population. It gives the extremist Jihadists considerable leverage over the Syrian and the Iraqi governments. The shutting of the Fallujah Dam in April 2014 left Shiite cities downstream without water. Simultaneously, it caused major floods upstream, drowning government forces and destroying five hundred square kilometers of farmland and thousands of homes. In the summer of 2015 ISIS shut down the Ramadi Dam, bringing the province of Anbar (under control of Iraqi governmental forces) to the brink of an environmental catastrophe. Moreover, lowering the water level of the Euphrates gave ISIS the opportunity to cross the river at any point and attack enemy territories with considerable ease. These tactics demonstrate ISIS’ increasing prioritization of securing water infrastructures as part of its expansionist strategy.

Water as a Means of State Building

Arguably, it is not in the interest of ISIS to breach dams deliberately. Floods may destroy ISIS-controlled cities like Mosul and Raqqa. Moreover, control of water infrastructures might actually serve as a state-building mechanism. The nascent bureaucracies in ISIS territory aim to provide basic services like a secure supply of water and energy. A 2014 brochure, called ‘State of Aleppo’, contains shiny images of the Euphrates, its dams and ISIS-run hydroelectricity plants. The brochure depicts a future in which water is distributed fairly throughout the state, free to be used for domestic or agricultural purposes. Water security is certainly part of ISIS propaganda. By letting water flow to cities and towns that are sympathetic to ISIS, or by simply providing a better service than Iraqi or Syrian authorities, ISIS could win the hearts and minds of local populations.

With ISIS in charge there is even water for public gardens

With ISIS in charge there is even water for public gardens

Water Wars

The adversities to arise through the menacing combination of a growing world population and climate change, make international policy makers believe that, in the future, fewer and fewer people will have access to sufficient clean water. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan warned in 2001: ‘if we are not careful, future wars are going to be about water and not about oil.’ Since then public figures like Prince Charles, politicians like John Kerry and journalists like Thomas Friedman have stated that the war in Syria was, in fact, triggered by water shortage. This line of thought led to the publication of dozens of books on so-called water wars. The American energy expert Peter Gleick argues that (a lack of) water triggers violent conflicts between states. He has collected hundreds of historical examples of water-related conflicts. However, the American geographer Aaron Wolf contests the claim of a causal relation between water scarcity and outbreaks of war by pointing to the International Crisis Behaviour Database. Although Wolf recognizes that water has been used as an instrument of war, the database shows no example of water constituting a casus belli. Historical source material actually shows that no less than 3600 treaties have been concluded between states on the shared usage of international waterways. Instead of causing war, water, Wolf therefore states, ‘often acts as a catalyst to cooperation, even between bitter enemies.’

Turkey: Hydro-Hegemony in the Middle East

Even though water has regularly been used as an instrument of warfare, a lack of water need not necessarily lead to the outbreak of war. Today the Middle East is heavily affected by war and the regional water regime, if one can speak of it at all, is characterised by anarchy. With the prospect of an oil price crash in 2016 and the increased (US) efforts to destroy ISIS oil infrastructures, it is conceivable that water will stay at the core of ISIS’ expansionist strategy. This, however, might lead to unforeseen developments. After all, another quick glance on the map shows that the Tigris and Euphrates both originate in Turkey. Considering the Atatürk Dam on the Euphrates and the soon-to-be completed Ilısu Dam on the Tigris, it is not inconceivable that Turkey could acquire total control of these important rivers in the Middle East. Whether ISIS will successfully maintain its position or lose its meandering stronghold to Iraqi, Syrian or Kurdish forces remains uncertain. Either way, with the increased strategic importance of water in the Land of Two Rivers, Turkey will certainly come to hold a unique bargaining power – one that it can use benevolently or malevolently.

ISIS-run hydroelectric plant on the Euphrates: the Tishreen Dam, renamed al-Farouq Dam

ISIS-run hydroelectric plant on the Euphrates: the Tishreen Dam, renamed al-Farouq Dam