Water stress is a growing problem worldwide. Overuse, population growth, and climate change are contributing to desperate conditions and violent extremist organizations (VEOs) are turning scarce water into a weapon. Nowhere is this trend more visible than in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), a region of critical importance to U.S. national security interests. The MENA region has long been prone to both cyclical and discrete periods of droughts. There is mounting evidence suggesting that climate change, by driving significant winter precipitation decline, is increasing the frequency and severity of these events.
Climate change impacts that affected Syria could be a harbinger for other countries in the region. The connection between climate change and Syrian instability was first raised by our colleagues Francesco Femia and Caitlin Werrell in 2012, and confirmed by climate scientist and Center for Climate and Security Senior Fellow, Colin P. Kelley, and his colleagues, who linked the consequential 2007-2010 drought to a long-term warming trend in the eastern Mediterranean (finding that the drought was made 2-3 times more likely due to climate change).. Drought conditions as well as poorly-designed and discriminatory water policies implemented by the Assad regime and the Alawite elite were also factors that contributed to societal instability at the onset of the Syrian civil war. The regional climate model ALADIN corroborates previous studies projecting that the MENA region will continue to be a global hotspot for drought into the late twenty-first century.
Declining water security in MENA is expected to stem not only from climate change impacts but also from other factors such as pollution, population growth, government corruption, and unsustainable utilization of existing water sources. Over the next 20 to 30 years, threats to water security in the region will be further exacerbated by continuing transboundary disputes over access to water resources as described in a July 2020 memorandum by the U.S. National Intelligence Council on how water affects economic and political stability. Countries of particular concern include Iraq, Iran, Jordan, Libya, Syria, and Yemen.
Water and Conflict: A Vicious Cycle
In MENA and Africa there is correlation between the spheres of influence of VEOs—groups that support and perpetrate ideologically-motivated violence—and areas of dry land or sparse vegetation.
Where extremist groups are active, the correlation between climate-based water stress and the onset of violence can be viewed in terms of a water conflict cycle which Marcus King (one of the authors of this article) described in a series of case studies of Syria and Iraq, Nigeria, and Somalia. In all three cases, water stressors such as increases in temperature, water scarcity, extreme weather, and depletion of groundwater led to detrimental local systemic outcomes. Climate shocks weaken state resiliency on multiple fronts. As a result of these stressors, people experience strains on rural livelihoods that accompany decreases in the productivity of agricultural systems. In each case, farmers responded through internal and external mass environmental migration, where in many cases they fell prey to violence perpetrated by VEOs.
Cross-border migration can also have cascading impacts on international security in a region as volatile as MENA. Somali migrants have fled to Yemen, another state embroiled in chaos, further complicating the delicate human security conditions in that country. Migrants from Syria, Iraq, Nigeria, and Somalia—all epicenters of water weaponization—continue on their way to Europe, and ethnonationalist political forces, by stoking fear of migrants, have exploited this humanitarian crisis to gain political power. The next stage of this vicious cycle is the loss of foreign investment and development assistance due to ongoing conflict which in turn hinders water infrastructure development. Domestic resources that could be used for this purpose are diverted to combat terrorism.
State and nonstate actors already at war have taken advantage of water stress to weaponize water as detailed in the three case studies featuring ISIS, Al-Shabaab, and Boko Haram. These VEOs have weaponized water in distinct ways depending on their capabilities and the characteristics of these ongoing internal wars. These cases prove that water can be used as a strategic or tactical weapon or as a means to terrorize, coerce, and subjugate local populations. For example, ISIS weaponized water on the strategic level by capturing the Mosul Dam on August 7, 2014. The group also wielded water as a tactical weapon against Iraqi forces, and collaterally flooded several villages. a In an article in the Washington Quarterly by one of the authors of this article, Marcus King, it’s argued that water weaponization was essential to the warfighting strategy of ISIS
Aside from outright weaponization, water has also been used by parties to conflict in MENA as a political lever. Mark Zeitoun coined the phrase hydro-hegemony to describe this behavior. As the upper riparian in the Tigris-Euphrates River System, hydro-hegemony places Turkey and the Kurdistan Regional Government in a position to leverage water resources against “Federal Iraq” which lies downstream. The construction of dams in Turkey and Iran, including in Ilisu, Daryan, and Sardash, are further decreasing water supplies.
As water becomes more polluted and scarce there is a perception in southern Iraq that the Kurds are overusing the waters of the Tigris and other rivers. This perception alone could be enough to destabilize relations, further eroding a frayed working relationship between Erbil and Baghdad. A treatment by Marcus King of the hydro-politics of Iraqi Kurdistan, including how climate change has impacted water resources, can be found in the volume Water and Conflict in the Middle East.
Today, as impacts of climate change are growing more intense, ushering in micro level water conflicts throughout Iraq, there is a sobering possibility that water stress will play into dissatisfaction with the national government manifested by popular support for a resurgence of ISIS in many areas.
Take the situation in the southern Iraqi city of Basra. Upstream damming has decreased water levels in the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers which converge in this area. This issue paired with decades of water mismanagement, climate-induced heatwaves, increased pollution, and seawater intrusion have limited access to electricity and clean water for drinking and sanitation leading to continued popular dissatisfaction and instability. Tensions exploded in 2018, as violent protests erupted after 100,000 fell sick from polluted waters. In January 2020, similar protests in Basra were met with violent reprisals by national authorities. Severe desertification in this area has caused farmers to abandon their livelihoods; some turning desperately towards theft for survival. In recent years, the worsening of desertification has correlated positively with increasing instances of crime such as armed robbery and human trafficking in Basra.
In 2020, the country faced scorching, record-high temperatures that reached 125.8 degrees Fahrenheit. In July 2020, government cuts to electricity left households throughout the country with few ways to combat unbearable temperatures. Again the Iraqis saw their upstream neighbors as the culprits while the increasingly delegitimized government in Baghdad did nothing. This raises the questions of what will happen as we approach another sweltering summer in Iraq.
Climate-driven environmental scarcity contributes to hydro-hegemonic behavior by nations and repeated, systematic, and unprecedented water weaponization by VEOs. Today, there is rising concern that Islamic State in West Africa is now extending its reach into Burkina Faso and that it may choose to leverage access to water over subjected populations to build allegiances, much as their brethren did in Syria and Iraq. Despite recent growth in water weaponization, we must not allow it to be normalized in modern warfare, and we must recognize and combat the role climate change has played in enabling such weaponization.
Overall, nations need to appreciate water as a potential tool for terror, and that it needs to be safeguarded as such. Protocol II of the Geneva Conventions prohibits the destruction of drinking-water installations, supplies, and irrigation works. Another agreement, the Convention on the Prohibition of Military or Any Other Hostile Use of Environmental Modification Techniques (ENMOD), prohibits action such as the deliberate destruction of infrastructure to kill civilians or to flood enemy positions. While climate has been addressed as a contributor to instability, there is a need for more robust legal remedies at the national and international level.
Development assistance from the United States and other multilateral actors that builds resilience to climate change will alleviate climate-induced water stress and reduce instability that could lead to violence across the MENA region. However, development assistance is a long-range strategy that is hard to implement during ongoing conflict. The Global Fragility Act, passed by Congress in 2019, provides funds to stabilize conflict-affected areas and prevent violence globally, including through development assistance, but it fails to mention climate change in any capacity as impacting state fragility.
The Biden Administration now has the opportunity to address this gap. In MENA, addressing water stress through development assistance can be a tool toward stability and conflict prevention and therefore form an integral part of counterinsurgency strategies against violent extremist organizations.