Dying for a Drink

Overuse, population growth, and climate change are turning water into a powerful tool for conflict in many parts of the world.

Environment Ethics Policy

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September-October 2019

Volume 107, Number 5
Page 296

DOI: 10.1511/2019.107.5.296

Starting in 2007, the Middle East plunged into the most severe drought since scientists began keeping records there in the 1930s. For three years, rainfall was far below normal. Up to 1.5 million Syrians abandoned parched farmlands and migrated to urban areas, bringing new social and political stresses with them. Low crop yields also led to widespread food shortages. Those factors by themselves did not cause the 2011 Syrian civil war, but they contributed significantly to the conditions that set it off. Water figured prominently in the subsequent violence too, as insurgent forces used water supplies and access as weapons of war.

We can expect to see more such water-based conflict, especially in the Middle East and North Africa. These regions experience chronically arid climate conditions and frequent yet unpredictable droughts. Compounding this problem, regional climate models predict higher temperatures, more frequent droughts, and increased variability in precipitation. Rising sea levels are leading to saltwater intrusion into freshwater rivers and fertile deltas, such as the Tigris-Euphrates in Iraq and the Nile in Egypt, that serve as breadbaskets for growing populations. Several nations in this part of the world are also war-torn with fragile governments. Changing climate conditions are likely to diminish food security and social stability in the coming decades.

Youssef Boudlal/Reuters

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The problem extends far beyond those regions. The United Nations forecasts that 1.8 billion people will be living in areas of water scarcity by 2025. A full two-thirds of the world’s population could then be in a state of water stress, meaning that they will face not only a shortage of the total volume of available water but also inadequate water quality and accessibility. Put plainly, we are facing a global water crisis.

Many political scientists have anticipated climate change and water scarcity as likely triggers for future conflict. In reality, that future is already here. I wanted to understand more about this emerging style of conflict; because the Middle East and North Africa are especially prone to it, that is where I focused my research. In 2016, I began poring over remote-sensing maps of the regions and noticed a correlation between the spheres of influence of violent extremist organizations—groups that support and perpetrate ideologically motivated violence—and areas of dry land or sparse vegetation. Many of those places were under acute water stress. Recognition of this overt correlation between water stress and the potential for violent conflict led me to explore more deeply the complex connections between the two.

I based my ensuing research project on three basic hypotheticals, which correspond to the preconflict, ongoing conflict, and postconflict phases of violent unrest. The hypotheticals are that 1) water stress is a causal factor in the outbreak of conflict, 2) water stress can accelerate conflict, and 3) alleviation of water stress can be an important factor in national postconflict peace-building and reconstruction. Previous researchers have explored the link between water stress and violence, but not across all three of these phases. A likely factor underlying their hesitancy is that there is no consensus that water stress can initiate large-scale conflict in addition to intensifying it.

Conflict is not the only possible outcome of water stress. Positive interactions built around water sharing between states and tribes have occurred on a formal or informal basis across the Middle East and North Africa since ancient times. One of the earliest stories in the Bible describes a peaceful resolution between Abraham and the Philistines over the rights to a well.

Tensions over access to water have also always existed, however. The word rivalry is derived from the Latin word rivalus, meaning “he who shares a river with another.” My group focuses specifically on interactions between organizations and actors at the subnational level. They often rely on rainfall collection and groundwater aquifers rather than surface waters as the primary sources of potable water. Rainfall is unpredictable, and aquifers are limited, making them both prime drivers of tension and conflict. In a warming, changing world, water stress and scarcity have the potential to exacerbate conflicts in South Asia, East Asia, South America, and other regions.

Pathways of Influence

My research project at George Washington University, carried out with the aid of several graduate research assistants, centers on violent extremist organizations involved in the internal conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Somalia, and Nigeria. We specifically focused on the Islamic State (IS, also known as ISIS) and other jihadists in Syria and Iraq; al-Shabaab in Somalia; and Boko Haram and Islamic militants in Nigeria belonging to the Fulani tribe. We also considered how water stress motivated other subnational actors, such as the semiautonomous Kurds in Iraq. The severe drought of 2007–2010 affected all of these countries.

Photograph by Jakob Dall.

For background, we analyzed peer-reviewed literature and other sources, including news reports, from the conflict zones. Public statements from the violent organizations and their social media feeds were also useful. Our initial research phase was more data-driven, including remote-sensing information about environmental conditions and the movements of violent extremist organizations. Finally, we validated our findings through interviews with security and political-science experts, conversations with high-level government officials, and discussions with relief workers at a major displaced-persons camp in Jordan, where many Syrian refuges ended up.

We found what we call pathways of influence leading from water stress and conflict in Iraq, Nigeria, Somalia, and Syria—all of the places we studied. These pathways are distinct in each case. These patterns can be useful for illustrating the causes and effects of water-related violence, both regionally and globally.

The first step in understanding the pathways of influence is to describe the political and social fabric underlying conflict in each nation. Ethnic, religious, social, and political cleavages are endemic in the countries of the Middle East and North Africa. Broad unity exists, however, around the way that people conceive of water resources. An important part of the social context is that water is intrinsic to the Islamic culture that characterizes much of the region. The original meaning of shari’ah was “the place from which one descends to water.” In the Middle East, prior to the advent of Islam, shari’ah governed water, later expanding to encompass the divine body of Islamic laws and rules. Water-based conflict therefore has cultural and religious implications that extend well beyond its impact on life and health. In principle, the link between water and shari’ah could help establish a taboo against water weaponization.

The second step along the pathway is to closely examine the geophysical characteristics of each country. One critical factor is the status of available water resources. Studying the underlying hydrological conditions in a country illuminates the underlying conflict dynamics because it helps us to understand the political economy of water distribution. We also pay attention to climate change, droughts, and other ecological changes that may lead to increased water stress. Next, we assess the impacts of those ecological factors on the major human systems, including agriculture, health care, and energy production. For example, depleted wheat harvests because of drought led to a breakdown in farming, producing lower agricultural yields and diminished food security in Syria prior to the outbreak of civil war in 2011.

Finally, and most important for purposes of conflict analysis, our pathways approach leads us to interrogate the specific and varied ways that people respond to systemic water stress. Conflict, migration, and emergency water-policy adjustments are typical reactions. The results can have global repercussions. They can boost the popularity of extremist ideologies, for instance, or disrupt corporate supply chains.

Countries often scramble to mitigate water-induced problems before they reach crisis proportions. For instance, in early 2018, the municipal government in Cape Town, South Africa, enacted severe restrictions (such as installing household devices to limit water consumption) to stave off the predicted exhaustion of the local water supply—a looming crisis referred to across the globe as Day Zero. Successful policy interventions, however, generally require functional, transparent, and well-informed governments. None of the national governments in the countries we analyzed fit this model.

In the absence of effective governance, migration and violence become more prevalent. This leads to a feedback process: Policy becomes harder to implement as water crises worsen, a country becomes more unstable, and the national government loses effective control. Other feedback processes also tend to amplify the impacts of drought, scarcity, and climate change. Poorly designed water infrastructure, such as the construction of inefficient open irrigation channels, can deplete water resources, intensifying the effects of ongoing droughts. Likewise, water overwithdrawal can exacerbate the effects on drought and desertification. Social and political breakdowns challenge government authority, making it even more difficult to address these entrenched problems.

Barbara Aulicino; Data collected by the author.

Our three national case studies produced strong evidence that water scarcity and water stress contribute to conflict through a cascade of effects. In particular, water stress played a complicated but meaningful role in creating conditions for unrest in Syria and Iraq. Even as the 2011 drought was causing poor local wheat harvests, Russia was also curtailing exports of wheat to Syria because of a corresponding drought back home. Syrian farmers were forced to abandon their lands and relocate to urban areas, where many of them were relegated to peripheral shantytowns without prospects of employment. That displaced population included many young people.

The city of Darra, Syria, was one of the places where such migration occurred. Fifteen disaffected youth were arrested for scrawling graffiti on their school wall. The regime of Bashar al-Assad responded with violent repression, which provided the spark for the wider conflict. The restive populations were mobilized to join multiple factions when the civil war broke out, but the Islamic State benefited the most. IS was able to draw 60 to 70 percent of its army from Syria. Drought set in motion events that led to conflict, but it was systematic discrimination and incompetent water mismanagement by the Assad regime that led to the full conflagration in Syria. In short, climate was not the only culprit.

Water as Weapon

At this point, it was clear to us that water stress can drive all three stages of conflict. What we wanted to understand next was the exact role that water plays during the conduct of hostilities. Where does the pathway lead?

A 2012 U.S. intelligence assessment on global water security predicted that as water becomes scarcer in the coming decades, states may be more inclined to employ water as a weapon. Some states that have greater water resources than their neighbors already exercise strategic advantage or hydro-hegemony. Turkey’s hydropower development in the upper reaches of the Tigris-Euphrates rivers threatens to undermine proposed downstream dam projects and to diminish the flow of water used for drinking and agriculture to Iraq. China’s hydropower program on the Mekong River and its tributaries has similar implications for the downstream nations of Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam (see “Sustaining the Last Rivers).

By our definitions, Turkey and China have not yet fully weaponized water, but they have employed water resources as leverage against neighboring states. Full-on water weaponization is already occurring among subnational organizations in the Middle East and in North Africa: They are overtly using water to kill, injure, or coerce their opponents.

We have classified water weaponization into six categories according to the intent of the perpetrator: strategic, tactical, coercive, unintentional, psychological, and extortion/incentivization (see chart "Six Ways Water Is Becoming a Weapon of War," above). Based on our research, we conclude that all parties to the conflict in Syria and Iraq-Islamic State—extremist organizations as well as the Assad regime—weaponized water in some or all of those respects. This is a new, worrisome development.

There are earlier examples of the deliberate destruction of water infrastructure; for example, the United States bombed dikes and dams in North Korea during the Korean War. Those, however, were mostly one-off events or side effects of other campaigns. The repeated, systematic, and comprehensive use of the water weapon by the belligerents in Syria and Iraq is unprecedented. Islamic State was responsible for 21 of the 44 major water weaponization incidents that we cataloged from 2012 to 2015. These incidents increase our understanding of how future water- related conflicts might play out.

Strategic weaponization in Syria and Iraq: IS used the water weapon on the strategic level to achieve virtual control of territory. An infamous example was IS’s seizure and brief control of the Mosul Dam on the Tigris River, a few hundred kilometers upstream from Baghdad, in 2014. This action provided IS at least the theoretical ability to destroy the dam and to unleash a torrent of water into the Green Zone in Baghdad, where allied forces were based. The United States was drawn deeper into the conflict, launching an airpower campaign largely in response to the threat to the Mosul Dam. IS also used water as a strategic asset. In Raqqa, the de facto capital of IS in Syria, the organization collected taxes in exchange for water access. It then used the tax revenue to fund administration of the caliphate (Islamic empire) and to procure weapons.

Tactical weaponization: On several occasions, IS wielded the water weapon in immediate support of operations against targets of military value. For example, we identified a 2014 incident in which IS militants diverted water from nearby rivers in Iraq’s Diyala Province to halt the advance of Iraqi security forces. A more recent example comes from Somalia. In June 2018, the jihadist group al-Shabaab staged an attack on American forces that had been deployed on an operation to liberate Somali villages in the Lower Juba region. By diverting water from the Lower Juba River, al-Shabaab flooded the area under surveillance by American Green Berets and Kenyan forces. The floodwaters forced Kenyan and American troops to relocate to higher ground, where members of al-Shabaab ambushed them, killing one American soldier.

In Nigeria, water has been used both as a strategic objective and as a tactical means of war. In the country’s Middle Belt, a transition zone between the lush Niger River Delta in the south and the arid northeast, an intense and protracted conflict pits seminomadic Muslim Fulani herdsmen against predominantly Christian farmers. The conflict is driven primarily by contested access to shrinking cattle grazing lands and to the waters along ancestral paths of migration. When the Fulani’s cattle consume or trample crops, farmers have retaliated by killing people and livestock and occasionally poisoning the water holes. Since 2016, herder-pastoral violence over water in the Middle Belt has accounted for more deaths than attacks by Boko Haram, the notorious terrorist organization based in Nigeria.

Since 2016, violence over water in Nigeria’s Middle Belt has accounted for more deaths than attacks by the terrorist group Boko Haram.

Coercive and unintentional weaponization: Because of a variety of factors, Lake Chad in northern Nigeria has shrunk by more than 90 percent since the 1960s. In 2011, the region also experienced a severe drought, causing a migration at an epic scale. Internally displaced people were left without shelter at the mercy of Boko Haram, which was active in the area. Although there is no evidence that Boko Haram intentionally used water as a weapon, water stress brought instability to the region and diminished the resilience of the population to the attacks and kidnappings perpetrated by the group.

In Somalia, al-Shabaab exercised a strategy of coercion through water. By 2014, government forces made inroads against the Islamist extremist group’s territory, eventually retaking most major cities. With drought again as a backdrop, al-Shabaab shifted its approach from traditional hit-and-run guerilla tactics. Instead, the group attempted to assert power and presence by cutting off government-liberated cities from their water sources. They were successful to the extent that the Somali government’s inability to provide water services eroded authority and legitimacy. Al-Shabaab miscalculated, however, when a famine ensued and they severely limited humanitarian agencies’ access to the drought-plagued regions. This action led to more than 250,000 deaths and hundreds of thousands of displaced persons.

The loss of life at such a devastating scale significantly undermined residual local support for the organization. We characterize al-Shabaab’s miscalculation as unintentional water weaponization against themselves.

Halting the Ripple Effect

Water weaponization in the Middle East and North Africa is a harbinger of wider political, economic, and security problems that are emerging due to population growth, water overuse, and climate change. These problems spread easily. Water stress and scarcity tend to drive migration, which can lead to further instability. For instance, Somali migrants have fled to Yemen, another politically fragile state, further undermining the delicate situation in that country. Migrants from Syria, Iraq, Nigeria, and Somalia—all epicenters of water weaponization—are making their way to Europe, straining social networks and unleashing nationalist sentiments there.

World Resources Institute

Syria, Iraq, Nigeria, and Somalia are important for geostrategic reasons beyond the international community’s essential motivation of stopping the spread of violent extremism. Nigeria is an important rising power because of its sizable population, oil production, and military alliance with the United States; the Nigerian government has provided a bulwark against extremism elsewhere on the African continent through its support of international peacekeeping missions. Somalia sits on the Bab-el-Mandeb strait, a link between the African continent and the Middle East where piracy (also driven in part by environmental factors) has threatened traffic for Persian Gulf oil and natural gas shipments to Europe and North America. A stable Iraq is important for many reasons, not the least of which is to bolster U.S. regional strategy seeking to bring peace to the Middle East while diminishing Iranian influence.

It is imperative that the community of nations act to prevent water weaponization from becoming a norm in modern warfare. At least two international treaties already classify it as a war crime. The Additional Protocol II of the Geneva Conventions holds that drinking-water installations, supplies, and irrigation works are off limits to destruction; a lesser-known agreement, the Convention on the Prohibition of Military or Any Other Hostile Use of Environmental Modification Techniques, prohibits action such as the deliberate destruction of infrastructure to kill civilians or to flood enemy positions. Violations are to be reported to the U.N. Security Council, and parties to the convention are compelled to provide enforcement assistance. In addition, the Global High-Level Panel on Water and Peace, founded in 2015 by 15 nations, has recently codified a modernized set of guidelines: the Geneva List of Principles on the Protection of Water Infrastructure.

We are hopeful that implementing these principles will strengthen international prohibitions. The intractable problem is how to prevent water weaponization by extremist organizations that are neither party to international law nor respectful of the rules of war. Nations need to become more aware that water is a potential tool for terror, and that it needs to be safeguarded as such. Addressing water issues should be an integral part of counterinsurgency strategies. Getting relief aid to refugees more quickly could help defuse situations like the one that helped ignite the Syrian civil war. At present, camps for displaced persons are typically sited with little regard for aquifers and water availability; applying that information could avoid potentially explosive conditions. And any success at holding sub-national groups accountable for water-related war crimes would go a long way toward reducing water weaponization.

Understanding how and why water has become a tool of conflict will not itself lead to these kinds of sweeping changes, but it is a crucial first step.


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