In the hot, dry Middle East, where populations are growing rapidly and all major rivers cross political borders, water has become a focal point for escalating violence. From the foothills of the Taurus Mountains in Turkey that feed the Tigris and Euphrates rivers to the desert wadis on the southern tip of Yemen, the history of water conflicts provides a cautionary tale: When water and politics mix, and when cooperation gives way to conflict, freshwater becomes an issue of human and national security and a tool of violence.
The long history of conflict in the region is intertwined with the history of water. The earliest recorded water fight is a dispute around 2400 BC over the use of irrigation canals in the ancient Mesopotamian cities of Umma and Lagash between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. When the walls and temples of Babylon were razed around 690 BC, the waters of the Euphrates were used to wash away the ruins.
Thousands of years later, these same waters have recently been at the center of dozens of incidents where water was a trigger, weapon or target of violence.
Explore the map above to see where conflicts over water have occurred, from 3000 BC to present day.
In 2016, the UN Secretary General reported that control of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers was an explicit tactic of the Islamic State (IS). The IS issued a video urging its followers to use water as a weapon and “poison the drinking water” of its enemies. During the ongoing Syrian civil war and the persistence of violence in Iraq, all the major dams in the region have been attacked, overrun, or used as weapons to cut off water supplies or to flood villages and farms.
These challenges, including direct competition for scarce water, have also gotten the attention of the defense and intelligence communities. As noted by the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence in 2012: “During the next 10 years, water problems will contribute to instability in states important to U.S. national security interests. Water shortages, poor water quality, and floods by themselves are unlikely to result in state failure. However, water problems—when combined with poverty, social tensions, environmental degradation, ineffectual leadership, and weak political institutions—contribute to social disruptions that can result in state failure.”
The Pacific Institute and WRI are working to trace the role of water in the broad context of security and identify strategies to reduce the risk water poses to peace. The Water, Peace, and Security (WPS) project aims to develop tools and strategies to help take water out of the realm of conflict and improve the chances that it can be a source of cooperation.
We’re already starting to learn how to reduce water-related risks for global security, as laid out in our new issue brief. Key approaches being developed by our WPS consortium include:
- Developing technical and analytical tools to understand and identify potential water-related threats to human security in near-real time.
- Implementing on-the-ground rapid assessments to verify and further research threats and identify possible interventions.
- Conducting outreach to global diplomats, defense and development experts (“3D” audiences), as well as to national governments of developing countries where we identify threats.
- Providing training and capacity building—and sharing information on effective solutions and best practices—to help developing countries cope with current and future crises and avert potential destabilizing conflict, migration or acute food insecurity.
- Convening water dialogues among key stakeholders at international, national and/or subnational levels, to try to diffuse tensions and pave the way for solutions.
- Improving and enforcing international water law that protects civilians and civilian infrastructure like water and wastewater systems.
- Building the resilience of water systems to enhance the ability of communities to withstand and then recover from armed conflict.
This won’t be easy, especially for the Middle East where political, religious, ideological and economic tensions continue to fracture the region. And the bad news is that water-related violence is increasing there, not decreasing. In 2016 and 2017 alone, dozens of dams and water systems have been casualties of violence, often depriving millions of people of access to safe water and sanitation. Water infrastructure has also been used as a weapon of war, such as when the Islamic State released floodwaters from dams captured along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers to punish downstream communities opposed to their ideology and to slow the advance of military forces moving to oppose them.
We must expand efforts to move to a more sustainable, peaceful future for water. We’ve got to take this resource out of the realm of conflict and into the world of cooperation. As the late UN Secretary General Kofi Annan said: "The world's water resources are our lifeline for survival and sustainable development. Together, we must manage them better and ensure their sustainable use for generations to come."