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Water becomes a weapon in Iraq war 2 juillet 2014

Posted by Acturca in Middle East / Moyen Orient.
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The Guardian (UK)  July 2, 2014, p. 23

John Vidal

All sides in conflict use crucial resource tactically. Control of Haditha dam could paralyse country.

The outcome of the Iraqi and Syrian conflicts may rest on who controls the region’s dwindling water supplies, according to security analysts in London and Baghdad.

Iraqi policemen north of Baghdad on al-Falahat bridge over the Tigris, a crucial water resource for Iraq and Syria Photograph: Ahmed Saad/Reuters

Rivers, canals, dams, sewage and desalination plants are now all military targets in the semi- arid region that regularly experiences extreme water shortages, said Michael Stephen, deputy director of the Royal United Services Institute thinktank in Qatar, speaking from Baghdad.

“Control of water supplies gives strategic control over both cities and countryside. We are seeing a battle for control of water. Water is now the major strategic objective of all groups in Iraq. It’s life or death. If you control water in Iraq you have a grip on Baghdad, and you can cause major problems,” he said.

Isis Islamic rebels now control most of the upper reaches of the Tigris and Euphrates, the two great rivers that flow from Turkey in the north to the Gulf in the south and on which Iraq and much of Syria depend for food, water and industry.

“Rebel forces are targeting water installations to cut off supplies to the largely Shia south of Iraq,” sa id Matthew Machowski, a Middle East security researcher at the parliament and Queen Mary University of London.

“One could claim that controlling water resources in Iraq is even more important than controlling the oil refineries, especially in summer. Cut it off and you create great sanitation and health crises,” he said, adding that Isis now controls the Samarra barrage west of Baghdad on the River Tigris and areas around the giant Mosul dam, higher up on the same river. Because much of Kurdistan depends on the dam, it is strongly defended by Kurdish peshmerga forces and is unlikely to fall without a fierce fight.

Last week Iraqi troops were rushed to defend the 8km-long Haditha dam and its hydroelectrical works on the Euphrates. If the dam fell, say analysts, Isis would control much of Iraq’s electricity and might fatally tighten their grip on Baghdad.

Securing the dam was one of the first objectives of US special forces invading Iraq in 2003. The fear was that Saddam Hussein’s forces could turn the structure that supplies 30% of Iraq’s electricity into a weapon of mass destruction by opening the lock gates that control the flow of the river. Billions of gallons could have been released, power to Baghdad cut off, towns and villages over hundreds of square miles flooded and the country paralysed.

In April, Isis fighters in Falluja captured the smaller Nuaimiyah dam on the Euphrates and deliberately diverted its water to “drown” government forces in the surrounding area. Millions of people in the cities of Karbala, Najaf, Babylon and Nasiriyah had their water cut off but the town of Abu Ghraib was catastrophically flooded along with farms and villages over 200 square miles. According to the UN, about 12,000 families lost their homes.

Earlier this year Kurdish forces reportedly diverted water supplies from the Mosul dam. Turkey has been accused of reducing flows to Lake Assad, Syria’s largest body of fresh water, to cut off supplies to Aleppo. Isis forces have reportedly targeted water supplies in the refugee camps set up for internally displaced people.

Iraqis fled from Mosul after Isis cut off power and water and only returned when they were restored, says Machowski. “When they restored water supplies to Mosul, the Sunnis saw it as liberation. Control of water resources in the Mosul area is one reason why people returned.”

Water has been widely used as a tactical weapon by Isis and the Syrian government, said Nouar Shamout, a researcher with Chatham House. “Syria’s essential services are on the brink of collapse under the burden of continuous assault on critical water infrastructure. The stranglehold of Isis and an eighth summer of drought may combine to create a water and food crisis that would escalate fatalities and migration rates in the country’s ongoing three-year conflict.

“The deliberate targeting of water supply networks … is now a daily occurrence in the conflict. The water pumping station in Al-Khafsah, Aleppo, stopped working on 10 May, cutting off water supply to half of the city. It is unclear who was responsible; both the regime and opposition forces blame each other, but unsurprisingly in a city home to almost three million people the incident caused panic and chaos.”

Water could be an insurmountable problem should the country split into three, Stephen said. “Water is one of the most dangerous problems in Iraq. If the country was split there would definitely be a war over water. Nobody wants to talk about that.”

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