One of the more salient conces to emerge from the impact of a warming planet is water scarcity, as scientists have inextricably correlated these two concepts for decades. However, what we are seeing now are terrorist groups taking advantage of areas with water shortages and manipulating water resources as a coercive tactic. The militant group, the Islamic State (ISIS or ISL) has put the issue in focus as a significant security conce and humanitarian crisis. For many geographically-disadvantaged nations in the world that are already dealing with water conces, the impact of climate change isn’t going to be felt 20, 30, or 40 years from now. The impacts are being felt today and will only worsen as time goes on. Furthermore, many of these nations that are already feeling the impact of unpredictable weather pattes leading to water scarcity, are also hotbeds of militant extremism. ISIS represents the first significant case of the results of climate change being used as a tool of terror.
The brutality carried out by ISIS has been well documented in the mainstream. From abhorrent images of beheadings of weste joualists, to persecution of innocent religious minorities or women, ISIS has emerged as a symbol of immorality and nefariousness. However, for all the raw savagery exhibited by the militant group, their strategic calculus should not be understated. The group has acquired a significant portion of their power in the region through a troubling phenomenon: water terrorism. ISIS has the power to influence the lives of millions of people through their strategic acquisition of control over water resources.
ISIS has adopted strategic ideologies that contrast from those of other terrorist groups. The strategy of ISIS involves the seizing of territory and important infrastructure, particularly those involving water and energy resources. In the arid desert regions of Iraq and Syria, the control of water essentially correlates to control of the conflict. For all the conversation about ISIS taking control of oil refineries, one could argue that their control of water is even more significant, as it deprives the population of a resource necessary for daily sustenance and gives the militant group significant leverage over local govements and populations. Water is a vital resource, used for electricity generation, agricultural production (and by result, economic sustainability), and proper sanitation. Additionally, water is critical during dry seasons and droughts, which will become increasingly prevalent as climate change continues to impact arid regions of the world.
The perturbing trend of water terrorism in Syria began in May, when rebels from the al-Qaeda splinter group, Jabhat Al-Nasura (who has now allegedly merged with ISIS), cut off water to the Shiite-dominated city of Aleppo, the largest in Syria. From this point forward, water became a premier strategy of ISIS for gaining dominance and spreading fear in the region. Earlier this summer, ISIS gained control of the Mosul Dam, a shoddy but key piece of infrastructure holding back 12 billion cubic feet of water and providing over 1,000 megawatts of electricity, for a brief period of time. Washington recognized the significance of the dam being in the wrong hands, deploying U.S. air power to help Kurdish forces recapture this key water resource. The Mosul Dam is the most important hydropower source in Iraq and the fourth largest in the Middle East, providing water and electricity to millions of citizens. Additionally, had ISIS chosen to destroy the dam, the resulting flood would have displaced and killed millions of Iraqis. ISIS militants feverishly attempted to seize the Haditha Dam, the second largest in Iraq, which would have been a disastrous development. Had the dam been seized, ISIS would have essentially controlled the Euphrates River, cutting off water and causing flooding, as the group had done with the Fallujah Dam. ISIS cut off water to certain districts containing Christian, Kurd, and Shiite minorities, while also using dams as an extortion tool for financing, offering to retu water for money.
The way in which ISIS has controlled water in the region sets a dangerous precedent that other terrorist organizations will surely emulate, as a coercive tactic. In fact, this strategy has already been imitated. Al-Shabab, the terrorist group based in Somalia, has seized this basic necessity as its strategy against the Somali govement. The group has restricted the flow of water to certain communities and they are fighting restlessly to keep their stranglehold on water infrastructure to demonstrate their presence and dominance in the country. Hafiz Saeed, chief of Pakistani terrorist group Lakshar-e-Taiba’s Jamaat-ud-Dawah front, accused India of “water terrorism”. The group, which was responsible for the deadly 2008 Mumbai attacks, has threatened to attack India again, in the form of a “water jihad”, paving the way for a turbulent confrontation among these two nuclear armed rivals. Iraq, Syria, and Turkey have engaged in water disputes over the shared Euphrates River in the past, which certainly does not bode well for future stability. Israel and Palestine have been locked in long-term disputes over water and electricity, as Israel controls the water resources of Palestine. With all of the acts of violence committed against one another, water-motivated terrorism is certainly a plausible outcome as Palestinian water becomes even scarcer.
ISIS has established a blueprint that can be used by other entities to take advantage of drought and water scarcity – especially in nations with poor goveance – a common theme throughout the developing world. Whether taking advantage of droughts and water scarcity in a region, or purposefully depriving citizens of water out of malice, water terrorism has emerged as a significant security conce, and will only be accentuated moving forward. Although water scarcity is just one of many climate change impacts, it is a condition that can be exploited by those looking to foster violent conflicts and instability moving forward.
Abhishek Ramaswami is a 2015 M.S. Candidate at NYU’s Center for Global Affairs with a concentration in Transnational and Resource Security.