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Water supply key to outcome of conflicts in Iraq and Syria, experts warn

 
Bottled Water Distribution in Iraq

Bottled water is prepared for distribution at a camp for those caught up in fighting around Mosul, Iraq. Photograph: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

 

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Water supply key to outcome of conflicts in Iraq and Syria, experts warn” was written by John Vidal, for The Guardian on Wednesday 2nd July 2014 13.19 UTC

The outcome of the Iraq and Syrian conflicts may rest on who controls the region’s dwindling water supplies, say security analysts in London and Baghdad.

Rivers, canals, dams, sewage and desalination plants are now all military targets in the semi-arid region that regularly experiences extreme water shortages, says Michael Stephen, deputy director of the Royal United Services Institute thinktank in Qatar, speaking from Baghdad.

“Control of water supplies gives strategic control over both cities and countryside. We are seeing a battle for control of water. Water is now the major strategic objective of all groups in Iraq. It’s life or death. If you control water in Iraq you have a grip on Baghdad, and you can cause major problems. Water is essential in this conflict,” he said.

Isis Islamic rebels now control most of the key upper reaches of the Tigris and Euphrates, the two great rivers that flow from Turkey in the north to the Gulf in the south and on which all Iraq and much of Syria depends for food, water and industry.

“Rebel forces are targeting water installations to cut off supplies to the largely Shia south of Iraq,” says Matthew Machowski, a Middle East security researcher at the UK houses of parliament and Queen Mary University of London.

“It is already being used as an instrument of war by all sides. One could claim that controlling water resources in Iraq is even more important than controlling the oil refineries, especially in summer. Control of the water supply is fundamentally important. Cut it off and you create great sanitation and health crises,” he said

Isis now controls the Samarra barrage west of Baghdad on the River Tigris and areas around the giant Mosul Dam, higher up on the same river. Because much of Kurdistan depends on the dam, it is strongly defended by Kurdish peshmerga forces and is unlikely to fall without a fierce fight, says Machowski.

Last week Iraqi troops were rushed to defend the massive 8km-long Haditha Dam and its hydroelectrical works on the Euphrates to stop it falling into the hands of Isis forces. Were the dam to fall, say analysts, Isis would control much of Iraq’s electricity and the rebels might fatally tighten their grip on Baghdad.

Securing the Haditha Dam was one of the first objectives of the American special forces invading Iraq in 2003. The fear was that Saddam Hussein’s forces could turn the structure that supplies 30% of all Iraq’s electricity into a weapon of mass destruction by opening the lock gates that control the flow of the river. Billions of gallons of water could have been released, power to Baghdad would have been cut off, towns and villages over hundreds of square miles flooded and the country would have been paralysed.

Euphrates River, Iraq

Iraqi men move a boat that was stuck on the banks of the Euphrates River after supplies were blocked by anti-government fighters who control a dam further upstream.

 

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