In a war, anything can be a weapon. In a particularly ruthless war, such as the conflict that has been raging in Syria for more than three years, those weapons are often turned against civilians, making any semblance of normal life impossible. Such is the case, experts say, with the way the nation’s water supply is being manipulated to inflict suffering on the population.
According to an article posted by Chatham House, a London-based independent policy institute, water infrastructure has been targeted by both sides in the conflict, leading to crippling disruptions in water supply over the last several months in cities such as Aleppo, Homs and Hama. The disabling of water treatment plants has led to a reported increase in waterborne diseases such as typhoid.
According to Chatham House researcher and fellow Nouar Shamout, the war has only worsened an already complicated and precarious water situation. ISIS, the Islamist rebel group that has seized control of many parts of Syria and northern Iraq, controls key parts of the water infrastructure in the regionally crucial Euphrates River system, including Al-Raqqa dam, which supplies one-fifth of Syria’s electricity and controls irrigation flows downstream.
The Euphrates River, which provides 65 per cent of the country’s water needs, is also experiencing a dangerous decrease in its flow rates. This is likely to be due to a combination of factors: decades of poor water management, current neglect of water infrastructure on the Euphrates, and the absence of any coordination between Syria and upstream Turkey regarding the river flow. As a result, in late May, the river dried up downstream of Al-Raqqa city, depriving many downstream towns of water. The water level of Al-Assad Lake — Syria’s largest reservoir, which provides irrigation for some 500 square miles of agricultural land and all of Aleppo’s drinking water — has dropped by six meters since ISIS took control in January. If the lake loses one more meter the water system will stop working. This will leave more than four million inhabitants without access to safe water. This could result in a humanitarian catastrophe that would overwhelm agencies on the ground.
As Peter Gleick, president of the California-based Pacific Institute, wrote in the Huffington Post back in May, the region’s troubled water supply has been one of the causes of the current conflict. Failure to respond comprehensively to a devastating drought that stretched from 2006 to 2011, wrote Gleick, left Syria vulnerable to destabilization. “The drastic decrease in water availability, water mismanagement, agricultural failures, and related economic deterioration contributed to Syria’s population dislocations and the migration of rural communities to nearby cities,” he wrote. “These factors further contributed to urban unemployment, economic dislocations, food insecurity for more than a million people, and subsequent social unrest.”
In February of 2013, a UNICEF report PDF said that the situation was already critical, with refugees in some parts of Syria facing severely curtailed access to water and sanitation, with as many as 70 people using a single toilet. The situation for Syria’s civilians has only gotten worse since then.
Now, ISIS is threatening water infrastructure in Iraq as well. “Rebel forces are targeting water installations to cut off supplies to the largely Shia south of Iraq,” Matthew Machowski, a researcher at Queen Mary University of London, told the Guardian earlier this month. “It is already being used as an instrument of war by all sides. One could claim that controlling water resources in Iraq is even more important than controlling the oil refineries, especially in summer.”
A failure to respond to the ongoing water crisis will further destabilize the region, many experts predict. And yet so far, millions of residents of Syria have been left at the mercy of warring factions with no scruples about leveraging this most vital natural resource to achieve their goals.
Chatham House’s Shamout warns that “both Syria’s regime and opposition groups are in a state of denial” about the severity of the crisis. The lack of water for irrigation, he predicts, will lead to dangerous food shortages as the wheat harvest is threatened by lack of water.
Shamout calls on the United Nations and international aid agencies to make water a priority, for drinking, sanitation and irrigation. Failure to do so, he writes, will put Syria at risk for “an impending tragedy.” A tragedy perhaps on an even greater scale than the ones the nation has already endured.
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Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including CityLab, Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn.