By Patrick Keys
Over the past 18 months, Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (hereafter, ISIS) has emerged as a major threat to the security of the Tigris-Euphrates basin, including the nations of Iraq, Syria, and even Turkey. Furthermore, ISIS’ appropriation of key territory along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, poses a serious and real threat to the surface water supplies of southern Iraq (e.g. Baghdad) and parts of Syria (e.g. Aleppo). ISIS does not appear to be going anywhere, particularly given that the US and its coalition are apparently focusing more on containment and protecting key assets, rather than destruction. So, these communities that find themselves downstream of ISIS’ domain must approach their water security pragmatically. This blog post answers the following questions:
- Can we categorize the situation, and is this type of situation unique?
- How does local-hydrology structure the water security threats?
- Given what we know of ISIS and the hydrology, which threats are most urgent?
Summary (in case the article looks too long)
The analysis below finds that the most urgent threat is that ISIS will take control of key dams on the Tigris and Euphrates, and manage them for maximum coercive effect. ISIS has demonstrated that they recognize the strategic importance of controlling such water infrastructure, given that they have already successfully taken the Mosul and Haditha dams (though as of May 2015, they do not maintain control). Importantly, they have already used coercive management as a weapon, when they spilled water from the Fallujah Dam and flooded 40,000 hectares of croplands.
Since this so-called caliphate would presumably desire to expand and eventually encompass large urban areas such as Baghdad and Aleppo (and perhaps eventually Damascus, etc.), ISIS has a strategic interest in not destroying key water and energy infrastructure, nor in degrading water supplies, because ISIS will eventually want these things for themselves. Furthermore, this threat is deemed most likely since it is consistent with ISIS’ strategic interests of protecting and using key water infrastructure, as well as being consistent with their previous use of water as a tool of terror, control and coercion.
Conversely, blowing up a dam (and causing a flood), or polluting water ways (and rendering water undrinkable) are contradictory to the ambitions of ISIS which is to spread the domain of its declared caliphate. The strategic foresight and ability demonstrated by ISIS thus far suggest that the leadership is pragmatic enough to forego such destructive water-oriented aggression (i.e. polluting/dam detonation).
Finally, ISIS will most likely take advantage of the fact that many of the region’s dams are under-capacity (that is to say, these dams can retain much more water), so ISIS could turn the outflow from the dams into a trickle. This would be catastrophic for downstream communities, be they farmers, urban civilians, or oil refineries. Read on to find a full analysis of how regional hydrology is related to water security and an evaluation of the different threats.
Can we categorize what has happened, in terms of water resources?
ISIS, a terrorist organization, has established a persistent claim over much of Tigris and Euphrates rivers that flow through Syria and Iraq, upstream of the confluence in southern Iraq. More generally, Group A has control of surface water resources that Group B depends on, and Groups A and B are hostile towards one another.
Has this type of thing happened before?
This type of thing has happened many times before, and is notable as a siege tactic. there are numerous historic accounts of this, many of which are related to armies surrounding a fortress or castle and trying to cut-off water supplies. A biblical story recounts the Assyrian Siege of Jerusalem, with the defenders in Jerusalem both blocking springs to the Assyrian siegers and developing underground delivery of groundwater into the walled city of Jerusalem.
There are, however, modern corollaries whereby a nation has gained control of key water resources. An overt example is the Israelis during the 6-day war fought for and acquired control of the Golan Heights, formerly of Syrian. In this way, Israel had control of a key source of the Jordan River. Other examples of one nation appropriating control of water resources as a byproduct of other territorial ambitions includes China’s control of Tibet. Though many, if not most, scholars on the topic would argue that China aims to control Tibet for reasons other than water resources, a side effect of this territorial appropriation is the control of the headwaters of many of East Asia’s biggest rivers, including the Brahmaputra, the Indus, the Salween, the Mekong, and the Irrawaddy (click map for bigger image).
There are likely more times than can be enumerated in a blog where one state/nation/culture has lain claim to an area of land that included water bodies upstream of a rival state/nation/culture. Suffice it to say that this event is neither unique in history, nor unique in geography.
What does water security mean in this context?
We’re going to use a definition provided by Michael Campana (and discussed earlier on this blog):
“Water security is the capacity of a population to access sufficient water to meet all its needs and to limit the destructive aspects of water. It involves both the productivity and destructivity of water.” -M. Campana
In this sense, water security in the watersheds affected by ISIS means that capacity of populations downstream of ISIS to access sufficient water resources, as well as the populations that are controlled by ISIS to access sufficient water resources. Furthermore, water security in this context refers to the timing, the volume, and the quality of water in the river that best meets society’s needs. To best understand how the timing, volume, and quality of water flows interacts with security threats, lets take a quick look at the basics of Tigris-Euphrates hydrology
What is the basic hydrology of the Tigris-Euphrates?
The hydrology of the Tigris-Euphrates is characterized by the semi-humid headwaters flowing into (and through) a semi-arid landscape. The annual flow of the two rivers peaks in the Northern Hemisphere spring (April to May), and there is large inter-annual variability (see graphs below from Issa et al., 2014).
Average Hydrograph for Euphrates River above Hit, Iraq
Average Hydrograph for Tigris River at Mosul, Iraq
These graphs demonstrate the seasonal importance of the flow of the Tigris-Euphrates. This seasonal flow is important for flood mitigation, as well as irrigation management, and power generation. This variability in seasonal flow interacts with spatial variability in precipitation as well (see map below).
The key information in this map is the fact that there is quite a lot precipitation in Northern Iraq and Turkey, not surprisingly given that it is the location of the headwaters of both the Tigris and Euphrates. However, its also important given that much less precipitation, and thus runoff, flows into either the Tigris or Euphrates south of the lands controlled by ISIS. Thus, if ISIS controls the dams, and manages the water in such a way that it harms downstream users, those downstream users cannot rely on additional runoff as a buffer.
There are many dams along both rivers, but the three key dams that I’ll focus on are the Mosul, Falujah, and Haditha (or Qadasiyah) dams. These three dams (and their reservoirs) constitute the most critical choke-points in Iraq that are threatened by ISIS, because of their importance to:
- Power generation
- Irrigation management
- Flood management
These three management priorities are inherently interlinked, with complex patterns of fill and spill related to when different things are needed (i.e. lots of water is needed for irrigation, but holding too much water may power generation priorities). The Mosul dam represents the key source of hydropower in Iraq. Furthermore, all of these dams are important for managing the flow of water for the irrigated farmlands downstream (both flattening out the flood peaks and providing reliable flows during the growing season). Recently, hydrologists at the University of Washington have used remote sensing data to *remotely* evaluate the volume of reservoirs around the world, including the reservoirs at Mosul and Haditha/Qadasiyah (see below).
The Mosul reservoir seems to follow a pretty regular cycle, while the Haditha/Qadasiyah reservoir is not as periodic. Importantly, the Haditha/Qadasiya reservoir has been at very low volums in recent years, which means there is more capacity (i.e. “freeboard”) to retain water behind the dam than in previous years.
This is where the threat from ISIS becomes most apparent. If ISIS controls the reservoirs, they don’t need to blow them up. That would be utterly foolish from a long-term strategic perspective, since they would need the electricity, irrigation management, and flood protection provided by the dams if/when they eventually expand their domain. But they could manage them in such a way that it negatively impacts crop production, electricity delivery, and increases flood-related hazards. And as stated earlier, they have sadly already done so with the Fallujah Dam.
(For more information specifically on the past, present, and future hydrology of the Tigris-Euphrates, please see the paper by Issa et al., 2014)
What are the threats that ISIS poses to water security?
Despite the fact that I’ve already shown my hand, and I think the key threat from ISIS is managing the dams in a socially destructive way, it is worth laying out the other threats to water security, and evaluating them in terms of their individual likelihood. As I see it there are six distinct threats posed by ISIS to water security:
- Building new dams, and retaining more water
- Securing existing dams, retaining more water
- Destroying the dams and flooding downstream
- Diverting the rivers
- Polluting/ poisoning the rivers for downstream users
- Simply using more water in situ
The table below summarizes these threats and the reasoning behind their respective urgency.
—>What does this mean for downstream communities?
In the past, the management of the Tigris-Euphrates among Iraq, Syria, Kurdish-held regions, and the headwaters nation of Turkey have been difficult, but manageable. Of course there are disagreements and conflicts, but there has also been a ready ability to negotiate streamflow rates on diplomatic terms. However, ISIS has not offered such diplomatic opportunities. Thus, the political nature of water security has changed dramatically, with a much diminished opportunity for good faith negotiations, and a much increased risk of outright water-oriented aggression.
What then for water security?
It is neither reasonable nor realistic to try and protect your upstream waterways from a well-funded, highly-trained militaristic organization, not least because there are simply some things that are out of the control of a citizen or a municipality (though an argument could obviously be made for a reasonably powerful nation). Nonetheless, the conflict serves as a cautionary example, particularly for regions that are at the downstream end of a long surface waterway and that are heavily reliant on that waterway for water resources.
Specifically, given the very real threat posed by ISIS to the multi-dimensional water security (i.e. irrigation/flood-protection/electricity-generation), and that the most urgent threat to water security is the destructive management of water at key choke-points in the rivers, the key lesson is to hold those choke-points, come what may. So, military efforts should emphasize protection of these assets, as has already been the case via targeted airstrikes from Iraq, the US and its international partners.
But defending these key assets is not the only approach to preparing and managing water security. Downstream communities, in particular Baghdad, ought to prepare for the different threats posed by ISIS (see table), even if they are unlikely or do not currently seem urgent. Primarily, the three key approaches fall under three different domains of water resource management:
- Diversify water sources (domain= water supply)
- Embrace “safe-fail” mechanisms, rather than “fail-safe” ( domain= risk management)
- Institute efficient communication networks (domain= disaster intervention)
—> Diversify water sources
Recognizing that a single source of water is inherently vulnerable were it to disappear, identifying and preparing multiple sources of water is a sound preparatory action in the fact of losing water supplies. Baghdad could develop flexibility in its water supplies by exploring water efficiency measures for certain high-use industries (such as agriculture or oil refining), as well as develop alternative water supplies such as desalination and enhanced storage of water in confined groundwater aquifers. These could serve as hedges against potential water-related hostility that pollutes or completely degrades surface water supplies. An opportunity for innovation here is for the Iraqi oil and refining operations on the coast to switch to desalination technology. Though expensive, it will be a more secure supply of water than uncertain surface flows. Finally, agricultural water needs are, sadly, the lowest priority, and in the event of drastic water limitation, farmers must be prepared to weather the storm.
—> Safe-fail approaches to water security (i.e. redundancy and resilience)
Until recently a phrase that has been popular with disaster risk reduction, flood management, etc. has been “Fail-safe”. This mentality, however, is dangerous particularly in the context of natural disasters or risk-management (e.g. the levees in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina). A new phrase is becoming popular, which is the inverse, “Safe-fail”. This reversal is more than just a semantic exercise, but rather a re-configuration of how disasters and risk are conceptualized, and how we view an appropriate response. Safe-fail acknowledges that certain protective measures will fail eventually, and that this failure should be safe rather than catastrophic. In the case of water security, a “safe-fail” approach might embody the redundancy of diversifying water supplies, but it is also embodied by the concept of resilience. If Baghdad needs water purification, they could invest in a concrete and steel purification plant, but an alternative strategy could be a wetland-based approach that provides the same function as a concrete and steel purification plant, but with the benefit of not being as reliant on human management. Better yet, the pairing of these strategies could create both redundancy in the system, as well as capitalize on the meta-resilience of multiple providers of the same function; thus in the case of one of the systems being eliminated or debilitated, the key function provided the system is not lost.
—> Efficient communication networks (Disaster risk-reduction/preparedness)
Finally, given that a key element of water security in this specific case could be the degradation of water supplies via pollution, etc., the ability of the government to communicate risks to the affected areas quickly and effectively is important. This requires both monitoring of water quality as well as the ability to communicate this information. Thus, there is a lesson to be learned from the disaster risk-reduction and preparedness community. The Iraq Ministry of Water Resources is tasked with maintaining water supplies, both quality and quantity, and thus the monitoring responsibility likely falls on them. However, given that so many other ministries rely on water, I imagine that coordination with other key ministries would be necessary including Ministry of Planning, Ministry of Agriculture, Ministry of Oil and the Ministry of Construction. Furthermore, the Ministry of Communications could likely be involved to develop inexpensive or free notification systems for citizens, companies, and organizations that would be affected by a rapid change in water quantity (i.e. flooding) or quality (i.e. poison?). Farmers often represent the “front line” when it comes to water resources since they operate on the periphery of urban and heavily populated areas.
(FYI, here’s a great list of Iraq’s various ministries with links to homepages. Some of the links are broken, but many aren’t and can be easily translated in Google Chrome.)
ISIS poses a real threat to the water security of the downstream users dependent on the Tigris-Euphrates for water resources, notably Baghdad, Tikrit, Samarra, and Hadithah. The most urgent threat comes from the potential that ISIS will take control of key dams on the Tigris and Euphrates, and manage them for maximum coercive effect. This threat is deemed most likely since it is consistent with ISIS’ strategic interests of protecting and using key water infrastructure, as well as being consistent with their previous use of water as a tool of terror, control and coercion. The intuitive threats of blowing up a dam (and causing a flood), or from polluting water ways (and rendering water undrinkable) are inherently contradictory to the ambitions of ISIS which is to spread the domain of its declared caliphate.
Ostensibly, since this caliphate would eventually encompass large urban areas such as Baghdad and Aleppo (and perhaps eventually Damascus, etc.), ISIS has a strategic interest in *not* destroying key water and energy infrastrustructure, nor in degrading water supplies. This is simply because, ISIS will eventually want these things for themselves. The strategic foresight and ability demonstrated by ISIS thus far suggest that the leadership is pragmatic enough to forego such water-oriented aggression.
If ISIS were to gain control of these dams, they would most likely take advantage of the fact that they are sufficiently under-capacity (that is to say, these dams can both retain more water), so ISIS could turn the outflow from the dams into a trickle. This would be catastrophic for downstream communities, be they farmers, urban civilians, or oil refineries.
Ferguson, J.” The World Will Soon be at War Over Water” Newsweek. 24 April 2015. http://europe.newsweek.com/world-will-soon-be-war-over-water-324328
BBC. “Battle for Iraq and Syria in maps. BBC News. 7 May 2015. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-27838034
Fakhir, A. “ISIS-held Iraq plagued by health problems.” SciDevNet. 30 January 2015. http://www.scidev.net/global/conflict/news/isis-iraq-plagued-health-problems.html
FAO Aquastat. “Euphrates-Tigris Basin” Water Report 34. Food and Agriculture Organization. 2009. http://www.fao.org/nr/water/aquastat/basins/euphrates-tigris/index.stm
Ferguson, J.” The World Will Soon be at War Over Water” Newsweek. 24 April 2015. http://europe.newsweek.com/world-will-soon-be-war-over-water-324328
Gao, H. et al. “Global Monitoring of large reservoir storage from satellite remote sensing.” Water Resources Research. 5 September 2012. DOI: 10.1029/2012WR012063
Harrington, C. and Null, S. “What can Iraq’s Fight over the Mosul Dam Tell Us about Water Security?” ISN Zurich. 29 August 2014. http://www.isn.ethz.ch/Digital-Library/Articles/Detail/?id=183283
Issa, I.E. et al. “Expected Future of Water Resources within Tigris-Euphrates Rivers Basin, Iraq” Scientific Research Open Access. 2014. DOI:10.4236/jwarp.2014.65042
Massih, N. “ISIS militants use water as weapon of war in Iraq and Syria.” Gas & Oil Connections. 21 July 2014. http://www.gasandoil.com/oilaround/2014/07/isis-militants-use-water-as-weapon-of-war-in-iraq-and-syria
Murakami, M. “The Tigris and Euphrates Rivers.” from Managing Water for Peace in the Middle East: Alternative Strategies. United Nations University Press. 1995. http://archive.unu.edu/unupress/unupbooks/80858e/80858E04.htm
RT. “Iraqi insurgents block Euphrates to flood army positions near Fallujah”. 12 April 2014. http://rt.com/news/iraq-dam-fallujah-isil-104/
Schwartzstein, P. “Amid Terror Attacks, Iraq Faces Water Crisis.” National Geograhpic. 5 November 2014. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/11/141104-iraq-water-crisis-turkey-iran-isis/
Tomlinson, D. “How disenchanted Islamic fanatics are returning home because jihad isn’t as glamorous as they hoped.” Daily Mail Online. 1 December 2014. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2855780/Indian-IS-recruit-goes-home-having-clean-toilets.html
Wikipedia. “Tigris-Euphrates river system; Water dispute”. Wikipedia. 10 May 2015. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tigris%E2%80%93Euphrates_river_system#Water_dispute
Wood, G. “What ISIS Really Wants.” The Atlantic. March 2015. http://www.theatlantic.com/features/archive/2015/02/what-isis-really-wants/384980/