25 Aug 2014: Analysis

Mideast Water Wars: In Iraq,
A Battle for Control of Water

Conflicts over water have long haunted the Middle East. Yet in the current fighting in Iraq, the major dams on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers are seen not just as strategic targets but as powerful weapons of war.

by fred pearce

There is a water war going on in the Middle East this summer. Behind the headline stories of brutal slaughter as Sunni militants carve out a religious state covering Iraq and Syria, there lies a battle for the water supplies that sustain these desert nations.

Blood is being spilled to capture the giant dams that control the region’s two great rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates. These structures hold back vast
Fighting at Mosul Dam in Iraq
AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images
A Kurdish fighter looks at smoke rising on the horizon following U.S. airstrikes on Islamic State militants at Mosul Dam.
volumes of water. With their engineers fleeing as the Islamic State (ISIS) advances, the danger is that the result could be catastrophe — either deliberate or accidental.

“Managing water works along the Tigris and Euphrates requires a highly specialized skill set, but there is no indication that the Islamic State possesses it,” says Russell Sticklor, a water researcher for the CGIAR, a global agricultural research partnership, who has followed events closely.

The stakes are especially high since the Islamic State’s capture earlier this month of the structurally unstable Mosul Dam on the Tigris, which Iraqi and Kurdish forces, supported by U.S. airstrikes, succeeded in retaking last week. Without constant repair work, say engineers, the Mosul Dam could collapse and send a wall of water downstream, killing tens of thousands of people.

Fights over water have pervaded the Middle East for a long time now. Water matters at least as much as land. It is at the heart of the siege of Gaza – the River Jordan is the big prize for Israel and the Palestinians. And over the years, water has brought Iraq, Syria and Turkey close to war over their shared rivers, the Euphrates and Tigris.

The Euphrates flows out of Turkey, and through Syria and into Iraq, before entering the Persian Gulf via the Mesopotamian marshes. The Tigris rises
The Islamic State’s quest for hydrological control began in Syria, when it captured the Tabqa Dam in 2013.
further east in Turkey and flows through territory currently controlled by the Kurdish army in Iraq. There, it follows a parallel path to the Euphrates before the two rivers mingle their waters in the southern marshes.

The two rivers water a region long known as the “Fertile Crescent,” which sustained ancient Mesopotamian civilizations. They were the first rivers to be used for large-scale irrigation, beginning about 7500 years ago. The first water war was also recorded here, when the king of Umma cut the banks of irrigation canals alongside the Euphrates dug by his neighbor, the king of Girsu.

Not much has changed. The dependence persists, and so do the disputes. The main difference today is that the diversion dams are bigger, and supply hydroelectric power as well as water. And that is why in recent months, many of the key battles in Iraq’s civil war have been over large dams.

The Islamic State’s quest for hydrological control began in northern Syria, where in early 2013, it captured the old Russian-built Tabqa Dam, which barricades the Euphrates as it flows out of Turkey. The dam, which is the
Dam locations in Iraq
Wikimedia Commons/Yale Environment 360
Key dams along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.
world’s largest earthen dam, is a major source of water and electricity for five million people, including Syria’s largest city Aleppo. It also irrigates a thousand square kilometers of farmland.

The Islamic State’s control of the Tabqa Dam has been haphazard, to say the least. In May, the reservoir behind it, Lake Assad, dramatically emptied. Many blamed Turkey for holding Euphrates water back behind its own dams upstream. But the Arab news service Al Jazeera quoted engineers at the dam as saying that their new masters had ordered them to maximize the supply of electricity. That required emptying the reservoir’s water through the dam’s hydroelectric turbines.

Since late May, the Islamic State has been trying to refill the reservoir by rationing electricity from the dam, with blackouts in Aleppo for 16 to 20 hours a day. Meanwhile, other fighting groups have shut down a water pumping station, cutting off clean water supplies for a million people in Aleppo. The UN’s under-secretary for humanitarian affairs, Valerie Amos, condemned this as a “flagrant violation of international law.”

From the Tabqa Dam, the Euphrates flows downstream through Iraq. Close to Baghdad, in the center of the country, it meets the Fallujah
After Islamic State forces took the Fallujah Dam, vast areas of farmland and thousands of homes were flooded.
Dam, which diverts water for massive irrigation projects that produce the crops that feed the country. In early April, Islamic State forces captured the dam. Reports of what happened next are confused, but it appears that the troops immediately shut the dam and stopped flow downstream.

This left towns such as Karbala and Najaf, a Shiite holy city 160 kilometers away, without water. But it also caused the reservoir behind the dam to overflow east, flooding some 500 square kilometers of farmland and thousands of homes as far as Abu Ghraib, about 40 kilometers away on the outskirts of Baghdad. Later, the rebels reopened the dam, causing flooding downstream.

This mayhem may have been a simple failure by Islamic State fighters to understand the hydrology of the river and the consequences of how it operated the dam. It may initially have been an attempt to deprive Shiite communities downstream of water. But Ariel Ahram, a security analyst at Virginia Tech University, suggests the eastward flooding was a deliberate act to repel Iraqi government forces attempting to retake the dam.

The UN secretary-general’s special representative in Iraq, Nickolay Mladenov, called the flooding deliberate, and demanded the restoration of “legitimate” control of the river. The Iraqi government says it has since recaptured the Fallujah Dam. But the conflict in the area continues, and events remain very worrying for anyone downstream.

But the battle for the Fallujah Dam may be a sideshow compared to that for much bigger Haditha Dam, further upstream on the Euphrates. This is the first Iraqi structure on the river after it flows out of Syria. At eight kilometers across, it is Iraq’s second largest dam. It regulates the river for the whole of Iraq, providing the majority of water for irrigation, as well as generating a third of the country’s electricity. It keeps the lights on in Baghdad.

Islamic State fighters controls nearby towns, and in recent weeks have launched repeated offensives to capture the Haditha Dam, which the Iraqi government is equally determined to hold onto. “If the dam fell, then a
The Mosul Dam, the largest in Iraq, is an engineering disaster waiting to happen.
large source of electricity for the capital could be shut down,” says Sticklor.

If the Sunni rebels want to use water as a weapon of war against the Shiite south of the country, the Haditha Dam would be a potent weapon. “They could disrupt downstream flow, either by withholding water or releasing a wall of floodwater, as they did from Fallujah this spring,” says Sticklor. “It would have a potentially crippling effect on food production and economic activity in central and southern parts of the country.”

It could also be lethal. The water behind Haditha has long been recognized as a potential weapon of war. In late June, employees at the dam told the New York Times that Iraqi government generals were prepared to open the floodgates against Islamic State forces rather than giving up the dam.

A decade ago, invading U.S. troops made the Haditha Dam their first target, fearing that Saddam Hussein would release a catastrophic flood. (He had a history of making hydrological war. After the first Gulf War, he built huge earthworks to divert both the Tigris and Euphrates away from the Mesopotamian marshes, where rebellious Shiites were hiding.)

The Islamic State fighters have also at times gained control of the other great river, the Tigris. Early on in their offensive, they grabbed the Samarra Barrage, just upstream of Baghdad, which diverts water to fields for irrigation. Messing that up could cripple the country’s breadbasket.

Much worse could happen at the Mosul Dam, which Iraqi and Kurdish forces recaptured from the rebels last week. That dam is the largest in Iraq. It barricades the Tigris about 40 kilometers upstream of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city. Living downstream of the Mosul Dam on the River Tigris looks particularly risky right now.

The Mosul Dam is an engineering disaster waiting to happen. Back in 2007, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers called it “the most dangerous dam in the world.” Its foundations are built on porous gypsum that is constantly being dissolved by water in the reservoir, creating sinkholes that threaten
Climatologists predict the drought will be permanent and the Fertile Crescent ‘will disappear this century.’
the structural integrity of the dam.

In 2011, the Iraqi government decided to let a two billion Euro contract to the Bauer Group, a Germany-based engineering company, to make the dam safe by constructing underground walls around its foundations. But the scheme has been on hold ever since, because of what the company has called the “political disturbances.” Nor is there progress on a plan to build another dam a little way downstream as a safety net to catch any moving wall of floodwater.

Despite the concerns, Iraqi government engineers have so far managed to keep the Mosul Dam working and the reservoir behind it full. To keep it intact, they have worked around the clock for years, pouring tens of thousands of tons of cement into grouting holes beneath the dam.

Last week, I contacted an Iraqi civil engineer, Nadhir Al-Ansari, now based at the Lulea University of Technology in Sweden, who had been planning to visit the dam this month to check on its state. He told me: “I had to cancel the trip. I tried to call the director of the dam on his personal mobile and there is no answer.”

The reservoir can hold more than 11 cubic kilometers of water. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ report cited a 2004 study by Mark Wheeler of the U.S.-based engineering firm Black and Veatch that predicted a failure of the dam would flood Mosul city within three hours. The flood wave would peak at 20 meters high. Within 72 hours, it would hit Baghdad, still about four meters high.

Despite such disasters in the making, many more dams are on the drawing boards. The Kurds want to complete the half-built Bekhme Dam on a tributary of the Tigris in Iraq close to the Turkish border. At 230 meters

MORE FROM YALE e360

China’s Dirty Pollution Secret:
The Boom Poisoned Soil and Crops

China's Dirty Pollution Secret
Three decades of rapid economic development in China has left a troubling legacy – widespread soil pollution that has contaminated food crops and jeopardized public health. In a three-part series, Yale Environment 360 looks at a grave problem that had been labeled a "state secret."
READ MORE
high, it would be the largest yet in Iraq. And both Turkey and Iran are capturing ever more of the flows of rivers that drain into Iraq, with Turkey building dams on both the Tigris and Euphrates.

Last month British researchers Furat Al-Faraj and Miklas Scholz of the University of Salford reported the demise of the Diyala River. Called the Sirwan in Iran, it is a major tributary of the Tigris, watering crops east of Baghdad. But in the past 15 years, the Iranians have reduced its flow by more than half. And worse is to come in 2018, when the Iranians plan to complete a new dam. The Karkeh River once helped fill the Mesopotamian marshes. But Iran now takes so much of its water for irrigation that the river rarely crosses the border.

This dam-building flies in the face of growing evidence that the entire region is becoming drier. Below average rainfall has persisted for almost a decade now. Less rainfall combined with water diversions have reduced the flow of both the Tigris and Euphrates by more than 40 percent in recent years, says Al-Ansari. Some analysts say that the intense drought of 2007-2009, and the resulting failed crops, helped trigger Syria’s civil war by creating social breakdown as farmers became refugees and food prices soared in cities.

Japanese and Israeli climatologists predicted in 2009 that the drought is likely to be permanent and the Fertile Crescent, which has sustained the region for thousands of years, “will disappear this century.”

As the rivers empty, the temptation to fight over what remains can only grow. It is a true tragedy of the commons.



POSTED ON 25 Aug 2014 IN Business & Innovation Climate Policy & Politics Policy & Politics Pollution & Health Water Asia Middle East 

COMMENTS


Well reported and in-depth article &mdash especially considering the topic is inside a chaotic war zone where sources are difficult to locate and contact. Excellent attention to detail and very revealing from historic and current perspectives. Note: Consider adding the Tabqa dam to the map.
Posted by Ellie on 26 Aug 2014


Wonderful written article especially with everything
that's going on in the Middle East at the moment.
It's scary to think that the collapse of the Mosul
Dam could kill thousands of people. This article was
very informative and detail-oriented. I try to keep
myself updated on the current news happening in
the Middle East but I wasn't aware of the battle for
control of water until coming upon this article.
Thank you for educating me on this important
information!
Posted by Julie on 06 Oct 2014


Excellent, water is not only a tool/object for government officials and the "military" but a rich commodity for broad spread corruption at many many levels.
Posted by Dixon E. Duval on 17 Jan 2015


As I was scrolling through Google I saw the kids over in the Middle East that are suffering and it's very sad. I sponsor a child from Africa and am going to visit this summer. The least you could do is help them send 5 dollars. It helps, trust me.
Posted by Lexi Rogers on 19 Nov 2015


POST A COMMENT

Comments are moderated and will be reviewed before they are posted to ensure they are on topic, relevant, and not abusive. They may be edited for length and clarity. By filling out this form, you give Yale Environment 360 permission to publish this comment.

Name 
Email address 
Comment 
 
Please type the text shown in the graphic.


fred pearceABOUT THE AUTHOR
Fred Pearce is a freelance author and journalist based in the UK. He serves as environmental consultant for New Scientist magazine and is the author of numerous books, including The Land Grabbers. Previously for Yale Environment 360, he has reported on tensions surrounding oil exploration in Virunga National Park and why China may end coal's big boom.
MORE BY THIS AUTHOR

 
 

RELATED ARTICLES


Pressure Mounts to Reform Our
Throwaway Clothing Culture

Americans dispose of about 12.8 million tons of textiles annually — 80 pounds for each man, woman, and child. In the U.S. and around the world, a growing number of environmentalists and clothing industry executives say it’s time to end the wasteful clothing culture and begin making new apparel out of old items on a large scale.
READ MORE

Point/Counterpoint: Should
Green Critics Reassess Ethanol?

Former U.S. Senator Timothy Wirth and former White House Counsel C. Boyden Gray argue that environmental criticisms of corn ethanol are unwarranted and that the amount in gasoline should be increased. In rebuttal, economist C. Ford Runge counters that any revisionist view of ethanol ignores its negative impacts on the environment and the food supply.
READ MORE

The Case Against More Ethanol:
It's Simply Bad for Environment

The revisionist effort to increase the percentage of ethanol blended with U.S. gasoline continues to ignore the major environmental impacts of growing corn for fuel and how it inevitably leads to higher prices for this staple food crop. It remains a bad idea whose time has passed.
READ MORE

For James Hansen, the Science
Demands Activism on Climate

Climate scientist James Hansen has crossed the classic divide between research and activism. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, he responds to critics and explains why he believes the reality of climate change requires him to speak out.
READ MORE

How to Talk About Clean
Energy With Conservatives

Angel Garcia, of Young Conservatives for Energy Reform, is working to persuade Republicans about the need for renewable energy. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, he explains why his group avoids mentioning climate change when it makes its pitch to conservatives
READ MORE

 

MORE IN Analysis


What Would a Global Warming
Increase of 1.5 Degrees Be Like?

by fred pearce
The Paris climate conference set the ambitious goal of finding ways to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, rather than the previous threshold of 2 degrees. But what would be the difference between a 1.5 and 2 degree world? And how realistic is such a target?
READ MORE

After Paris, A Move to Rein In
Emissions by Ships and Planes

by fred pearce
As the world moves to slash CO2 emissions, the shipping and aviation sectors have managed to remain on the sidelines. But the pressure is now on these two major polluting industries to start controlling their emissions at last.
READ MORE

Abrupt Sea Level Rise Looms
As Increasingly Realistic Threat

by nicola jones
Ninety-nine percent of the planet's freshwater ice is locked up in the Antarctic and Greenland ice caps. Now, a growing number of studies are raising the possibility that as those ice sheets melt, sea levels could rise by six feet this century, and far higher in the next, flooding many of the world's populated coastal areas.
READ MORE

How Nations Are Chipping
Away at Their Protected Lands

by richard conniff
Winning protected status for key natural areas and habitat has long been seen as the gold standard of conservation. But these gains are increasingly being compromised as governments redraw park boundaries to accommodate mining, logging, and other development.
READ MORE

Can We Reduce CO2 Emissions
And Grow the Global Economy?

by fred pearce
Surprising new statistics show that the world economy is expanding while global carbon emissions remain at the same level. Is it possible that the elusive “decoupling” of emissions and economic growth could be happening?
READ MORE

On Fuel Economy Efforts,
U.S. Faces an Elusive Target

by marc gunther
One of President Obama’s signature achievements on climate has been strict standards aimed at improving auto fuel efficiency to nearly 55 miles per gallon by 2025. But credits and loopholes, coupled with low gas prices, may mean the U.S. will fall well short of this ambitious goal.
READ MORE

New Green Challenge: How to
Grow More Food on Less Land

by richard conniff
If the world is to have another Green Revolution to feed its soaring population, it must be far more sustainable than the first one. That means finding ways to boost yields with less fertilizer and rethinking the way food is distributed.
READ MORE

How Forest Loss Is Leading
To a Rise in Human Disease

by jim robbins
A growing body of scientific evidence shows that the felling of tropical forests creates optimal conditions for the spread of mosquito-borne scourges, including malaria and dengue. Primates and other animals are also spreading disease from cleared forests to people.
READ MORE

El Niño and Climate Change:
Wild Weather May Get Wilder

by fred pearce
This year’s El Niño phenomenon is spawning extreme weather around the planet. Now scientists are working to understand if global warming will lead to more powerful El Niños that will make droughts, floods, snowstorms, and hurricanes more intense.
READ MORE

How ‘Natural Geoengineering’
Can Help Slow Global Warming

by oswald j. schmitz
An overlooked tool in fighting climate change is enhancing biodiversity to maximize the ability of ecosystems to store carbon. Key to that strategy is preserving top predators to control populations of herbivores, whose grazing reduces the amount of CO2 that ecosystems absorb.
READ MORE


e360 digest
Yale
Yale Environment 360 is
a publication of the
Yale School of Forestry
& Environmental Studies
.

SEARCH e360



Donate to Yale Environment 360
Yale Environment 360 Newsletter


CONNECT


ABOUT

About e360
Contact
Submission Guidelines
Reprints

E360 en Español

Universia partnership
Yale Environment 360 articles are now available in Spanish and Portuguese on Universia, the online educational network.
Visit the site.


DEPARTMENTS

Opinion
Reports
Analysis
Interviews
Forums
e360 Digest
Podcasts
Video Reports

TOPICS

Biodiversity
Business & Innovation
Climate
Energy
Forests
Oceans
Policy & Politics
Pollution & Health
Science & Technology
Sustainability
Urbanization
Water

REGIONS

Antarctica and the Arctic
Africa
Asia
Australia
Central & South America
Europe
Middle East
North America

e360 VIDEO

“video
Tribal people and ranchers join together to stop a project that would haul coal across their Montana land.
Watch the video.

e360 MOBILE

Mobile
The latest
from Yale
Environment 360
is now available for mobile devices at e360.yale.edu/mobile.

e360 PHOTO ESSAY

“Alaska
An aerial view of why Europe’s per capita carbon emissions are less than 50 percent of those in the U.S.
View the photos.

e360 VIDEO

“Ugandan
Ugandan scientists monitor the impact of climate change on one of Africa’s most diverse forests and its extraordinary wildlife.
Learn more.

e360 VIDEO

Food waste
An e360 video series looks at the staggering amount of food wasted in the U.S. – a problem with major human and environmental costs.
Watch the video.

e360 VIDEO

Colorado wildfires
An e360 video goes onto the front lines with Colorado firefighters confronting deadly blazes fueled by a hotter, drier climate.
Watch the video.

e360 SPECIAL REPORT

“Tainted
A three-part series Tainted Harvest looks at the soil pollution crisis in China, the threat it poses to the food supply, and the complexity of any cleanup.
Read the series.

OF INTEREST



Yale