Control of water at issue in Iraq conflict

The taking of the Mosul Dam on the Tigris River from ISIS by Kurdish Peshmerga forces backed by US air power highlights the strategic nature of water in the multi-sided Iraq conflict. Even before ISIS seized the giant dam in early August, the militants were taking advantage of the country's drought, cutting off the flow of water from the dam to Baghdad through territory under their control. "ISIS is starting to use dams as weapon of war," wrote meteorologist Eric Holthaus, Slate's Future Tense blog. "So they've made [it] high on their list to take over those dams and control the water downstream." July saw battles between ISIS militants and government troops over the Haditha Dam and its hydroelectric works on the Euphrates. The fall of the complex to ISIS would have given the rebels control over Baghdad's electricity source. But the most grave danger has not passed: ongoing fighting and air-strikes in the area of the Mosul Dam could lead to the dam being breached, which would flood Mosul and other downstream cities, possibly even affecting Baghdad.

And the dam is none too stable to begin with. The US Army Corps of Engineers has dubbed it "the most dangerous dam in the world," although the Iraqi government rejects the accusation. Completed in 1984, it is built on water-soluble soils that must be constantly reinforced to prevent a collapse. (AFP, NPR, Aug. 18; PRI, July 9; Mail & Guardian, South Africa, July 4)

ISIS is also accusing Turkey of reducing flows to Lake Assad, Syria's largest body of fresh water, to cut off supplies to the rebels. Some 5 million people depend on the lake for fresh water, and it is now at record low levels. Much of the territory around it is controlled by ISIS, including the jihadist group's "capital," Raqqa. In a statement Aug. 12, ISIS threatened that if Turkey did not restore the flow of water, the jihadists would do it themselves by "liberating Istanbul." Turkey's Forestry and Water Affairs Minister Veysel Eroğlu retorted: "Turkey is a country that does not surrender to such threats… Consequently, ISIL shouldn't bluff about threats. We have patience to a certain point." (Hurriyet Daily News, Ooksa News, Aug. 12; IBT, July 7)

Iraq and Syria have both long been unhappy with Turkey's Ataturk Dam, because much of the water that would naturally flow into these countries is siphoned off for irrigation in the integrated Central Anatolia Project. So both ISIS and Ankara have used control of water as a weapon against those downstream. And water scarcity is also among the pressures related to climate change that evidently played a role in destabilizing the region in the first place…

  1. Mosul Dam in danger of collapse

    Budget shortfalls due to the slump in oil prices and political rivalry between Baghdad and the Kurdish regional government have hampered urgently needed repairs at the Mosul Dam, theatening imminent collapse. There is also a desperate shortage of workers. Half the workforce has left the dam for other jobs on account of not being paid for up to five months. (BBC News, Jan. 22)