Samantha North
Last updated: 23 March, 2015

‘Real and effective’ collaboration key to mitigating IS water threat

Since bursting onto the scene in summer 2014, the militant group Islamic State (IS) has wreaked extensive damage, destruction and death across a large swathe of Syria and Iraq. Much focus has been placed on the group’s acts of extreme violence. But far less has been said about another form of violence, less obviously bloody but perhaps more even more dangerous. Samantha North reports.

Not content with forcefully imposing its twisted version of Islam on local populations in Iraq and Syria, IS has also exerted control by other means. The group has captured a number of vital water resources in the region, wresting control of the people by holding their water supply hostage. IS water control has had other devastating effects in an already dry and arid region. Water shortages have destroyed agricultural land in the rural areas and caused electricity loss in the cities. Combined, this has meant severe setbacks for the region’s economy. 

Taking control of the water has enabled IS to completely subjugate local populations, which are heavily dependent on water supplies. Before IS arrived, previous droughts and water shortages have produced an already fragile relationship with water, leaving people with little choice but to comply with IS demands. 

IS HAS SHOWN considerable imagination in terms of water control. In September 2014, according to the recent report Water and Violenceby Mumbai-based consultancy Strategic Foresight Group, IS militants reportedly used chlorine as a chemical weapon against Iraqi soldiers near Baghdad. They had extracted the deadly gas from captured water treatment plants in Iraq. Although this approach is not new in itself, it is a first for IS. The development shows that the group is now taking a different approach to water: using it not just as a tool but also as a weapon.

“Taking control of the water has enabled IS to completely subjugate local populations” 

The water situation in Syria and Iraq has taken a back seat in global media coverage, which has tended to focus on the more conspicuous and bloody elements of IS activities. Although water warfare perhaps offers less dramatic storylines, it nevertheless poses an existential threat that is equal if not more serious in the long-term than the violent attacks that make daily headlines. 

Use of water as a weapon is not a new phenomenon in the Middle East. In 1960s Syria, Israel bombed the infrastructure of the Jordan River in order to divert its water. Various water-related attacks continued throughout the following decades, across Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey, and Jordan. According to Water and Violence, water-related attacks have ranged from poisoning the water supply (as the PKK did in 1992, when they put potassium cyanide in the water tank at a Turkish air force base), to bombing of dams, canals, roads and power plants, and the burying of toxic waste. 


IS BEGAN TO USE water as a strategic weapon back in November 2012, when it captured the Tishrin Dam in Syria. Since then, the group has repeated similar strategies to gain control over Mosul, Samarra and Fallujah. IS considers water and water infrastructure not just as important tools of expansion and extortion, but also as valuable financial assets and efficient instruments for waging war. 

The group has already caused significant damage in western and southern Iraq by closing the gates of the Fallujah Dam on the Euphrates. It has controlled this dam since the beginning of 2014. Although IS has not yet resorted to repeating this approach in Syria, the potential is certainly there.    

“The scope for IS mischief-making with Syria’s water is enormous. Among the many things that they could do would be to mess up the country’s flagship Euphrates Dam. That this hasn’t happened so far is no guarantee that there won’t be some water-terrorism catastrophe instigated by them in the near future”, said Riad al Khouri, Jordanian economist and researcher on Syria. 

Experts in water and security, who gathered at the Blue Peace Forum last week in Amman to discuss the region’s water problems, agreed that improving cross-border co-operation in general would be an important first step towards mitigating the IS threat. 

Maysoon Zoubi, former director general of the Jordanian Ministry of Water and Irrigation, commented: “The best solution to IS is establishing real and effective collaboration.”