BEIRUT: Militants from ISIS now control or threaten key facilities on the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, generating fears that the Al-Qaeda splinter group could turn off the taps to the Shiite south of Iraq, sparking a massive humanitarian crisis.Last month’s ISIS-led offensive across Iraq saw it overrun cities and battle for oil refineries as the national army melted away, but it has also been waging a war for water, trying to wrest control over rivers, dams and desalination plants in a bid to solidify its territorial gains.
Control of water is seen as key to the viability of the fledgling caliphate declared by ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Without water, seasonal droughts cannot be managed, electricity cannot be generated, proper sanitation practices are near impossible and the local economy grinds to a virtual halt.
“When it comes to creating an Islamic state, it is not just about the control of geographic areas in Syria and Iraq. In order to form a viable state, one must control the state’s most vital infrastructure, which in Iraq’s case is water and oil,” said Matthew Machowski, a research fellow at Queen Mary University.
In Mosul, the first city ISIS captured, residents fled when the water and electricity were cut off but returned a few days later when the jihadist group was able to switch supplies back on, in a bid to engender support among the local population.
Iraq’s 32 million people are entirely dependent on water flowing down from two great rivers in Turkey, the Euphrates and the Tigris. Where those waterways enter Iraq in the north, ISIS holds key dams and surrounding areas, leaving Shiite-majority southern Iraq vulnerable to the use of water as a strategic weapon.
In April, ISIS seized control of the Fallujah dam and its fighters released a wall of water from behind the barrage, destroying cropland 160 kilometers downstream and leaving millions of people without water in the predominately Shiite cities of Karbala, Najaf and Babil, while flooding areas as far away as Abu Ghraib.
“The intent behind the water release was to use water aggressively as a tool of destruction, targeting populations who live father south,” said Russell Sticklor, co-author of Water Challenges and Cooperative Response in the Middle East and North Africa.
“ ISIS is well aware of the strategic importance of controlling water access … Control of this water infrastructure allows ISIS to control the faucet, and decide how much – or how little – water is released downstream. This is of great strategic importance because southern Iraq, the Shiite heartlands, needs water from the Tigris and the Euphrates to survive,” he added. “They are in a very vulnerable position,”
Full article: ISIS gains highlight ‘aggressive’ use of water as weapon of war (Daily Star)