In the latest chapter of its ongoing campaign to extend its caliphate, the Islamic State has seized control of six major dams in Syria and Iraq, and is now employing water as a weapon against local villagers, subjecting them to drought at will or rewarding them with water for their cooperation.
A new report produced by German Television has revealed that ISIS now controls three quarters of the eight largest dams on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and directs the water supply to populations friendly to its regime, punishing those who oppose it with drought or even poisoning its water supply.
ISIS reportedly seeks to gain control of dams in conquered territory as a part of its military strategy. Controlling a basic human need like water gives militants leverage over local populations, especially in territory where drought means death, and can also be used offensively, for instance by flooding land to obstruct enemy troop movements.
According to German researcher, Dr. Tobias von Lossow of the Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), dam-control is an integral part of the Islamic State’s tactics, and that it has already provoked droughts in hostile villages by closing the dams’ output.
“On one hand, IS is damming the river to retain water and dry up certain regions, thereby cutting off the water supply to villages and communities. On the other hand, it has also flooded areas to drive away their inhabitants and to destroy their livelihoods,” von Lossow said.
Von Lossow reported that the terrorists recent maneuvers are not isolated actions, but form part of a larger strategy.
“IS uses water systematically and consistently. IS uses the entire range of possibilities and variations of water warfare,” he said.
After failing to secure control of the Mosul dam on the Tigris in August, 2014, the Islamic State took control of the Euphrates dam in the city of Ramadi in May, 2015. They immediately cut the water output by half, causing a shortage in five provinces. At the time, militants stopped the flow of water as a weapon against Iraqi troops and then flooded the surrounding area, provoking major damages and driving 60,000 people from the region.
As effective as it is, controlling water output is not the only way to engage in water warfare, and ISIS has also engaged in the contamination or poisoning of water sources.
“There are essentially three ways of using water resources as a weapon,” von Lossow has written, “by making sure that too little water is available, or too much, or water of insufficient quality. IS has repeatedly used all three variants and has had an impact at the local, regional and national level.”
The worst, however, may be yet to come. Von Lossow said that a weakened ISIS may prove more dangerous than a strong one, since desperation frequently spawns exceptionally cruel and indiscriminate atrocities and they will want to perpetrate the greatest damage possible.
“The biggest risk remains on the table when pressure increases on the terrorist organization and it starts to lose ground and population, it can resort to destroying the area by bombing the dams on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers which will turn their water into weapons of mass destruction,” he said.
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