ISIS and the Flood: the hydro-politics behind the rise (and fall) of Daesh

EDITORS NOTE: This is the fourth and final article in a four-part series which explores the role of water in human conflict and politics. The series marks (though is not affiliated with) World Water Day 2016, a UN initiative to promote awareness of water issues. More information on World Water Day can be found here. The first, second, and third, articles in the series can be found here,  here, and here, respectively.

By: Harris Kuemmerle

The Euphrates River edging against the desert. Source: Wikimedia

The average person can only survive 3-7 days without water before ultimately (and inevitably) succumbing to a painful death. Likewise, there is not a single nation-state on earth whose day-to-day existence is not entirely and utterly dependent upon the economic, agricultural, political, cultural, and fundamentally life giving qualities of that all-important molecule. Water is the lowest common denominator. There is no substitute, and there is no cure for its absence. In a very real sense, governments live by the tap, and die by the tap; and the so called Islamic State are no exception.

After all, their rise occurred against the backdrop of profound underlying hydrological factors and issues in the run-up to the destabilisation of Syria in 2011, namely one of the worst droughts in half a century. A drought which was primarily the result of a confluence of factors mainly including climate change, and ineffectual and short-sighted hydrological management and agricultural policies on the part of the Assad government. Make no mistake, droughts are very bad for business, and a recent report by UN-Water (the inter-agency UN organisation designed to assist states promote water quality and availability) suggested that as many as four-fifths, or about 78%, of all jobs globally are moderately or heavily dependent upon a stable supply of water.[1]

This is especially true in the rural Syrian north east where the traditional reliance on agriculture is made possible by the large areas of arable land, compared to the rest of Syria. Indeed, the area of Al-Hasakeh in particular is responsible for around 75% of Syria’s total wheat production.[2] This bounty, however, also makes the north east region heavily dependent upon reliable water supplies for life and living. Therefore, it seems likely that such a major drought would have hit Syrian employment hard as agricultural falters in its traditional regions. And indeed, the result of this drought was the large scale unemployment of around 800,000 people; which in turn resulted in thousands of young men moving from the rural areas to the cities in search of work.[3] This arguably both added to existing stresses and tensions and had the unintended consequence of creating a large and desperate pool of young men for groups like Daesh to exploit.[4] While it would be simplistic to claim that the drought caused the Syrian uprising and resultant civil war by itself, it was an undeniable stress multiplier which Daesh were deftly able to exploit. However, water issues have also been an integral factor in the rise of Daesh beyond just fuelling destabilisation and providing the environment for a large pool of willing recruits to join their state-building project.

Water as a weapon of war

The brutality and savagery of Daesh tactics are well documented, with their latest attack in Brussels sending shock waves around the world. However, probably their least well known (and arguably most effective) strategies have been their attempts to control the dams and waters of the Tigris and Euphrates; rivers which constitute the vast majority of habitable and arable land in Iraq and Syria. Since their inception Daesh have at one time or another taken control of five dams along the Tigris and Euphrates; the Samarra, Nuaimiyah, Haditha, Mosul, and Tishrin.[5] This has given them the capabilities to drown entire cities such as Baghdad or shutoff the water or electricity to whole communities as a means of instilling psychological terror or controlling populations. Capabilities which have been turned into actions on numerous occasions. For example, in April 2014 Daesh closed the gates of the Nuaymiyah Dam and the resulting flooding successfully unseated government forces in the area and caused water shortages for millions, and thousands to lose their homes.[6] Furthermore, in August 2014 Daesh successfully captured Mosul Dam, the control of which put Baghdad and almost half a million Iraqis in direct danger of flooding and electricity blackout. The danger was deemed to be so great that the Iraqi government committed considerable resources (including US assistance) to its successful recapture.[7]

However, Daesh is still in control of a number of other dams in Syria and Iraq and their control has given Daesh not only an effective means of combating government forces, it has also given them a powerful and coercive tool for both instilling dread and loyalty among populations.[8] In the words of Michael Stephen at RUSI, ‘the 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. Water is essential in this conflict.’[9] Indeed, in a 2014 issue of Dabiq (Daeshs’ official magazine) the group claimed that ‘it’s either Islamic State or the flood’, making clear their willingness to use water as a weapon of war.[10]

Water as a tool of peace

However, when the guns fall quiet and the warriors go home the prevailing state must be able to provide for the basic services of its people, including its vanquished. That ability to provide basic services is one of the most common tests of a state, and Daesh is not exempt from this. Adding to that, in the case of arid Syria and Iraq, the supply of water is of particular importance and according to one intelligence official, ‘if ISIS has any hope of establishing itself on territory, it has to control some water.’[11] However, this control also comes with responsibilities; and crucially, costs.

If Daesh intends to survive as a state in the traditional sense then it must invest heavily in the building, upgrading, and management of new and current water works infrastructure and delivery projects while also ensuring that the supply is sustainable. This investment will likely require substantial financial and political costs in their newly conquered regions as their inherited infrastructure becomes unfit for purpose. While at the same time Daesh will also need to be able to evolve its institutional structure in order to have the organisational bodies necessary to oversee these developments and manage the system while also making sure they are well staffed with trained personnel.

Going hand in hand with this management and governance will be dealing with issues pertaining to the equal use of the waters and Daesh will have to have systems put in place to mediate disputes over fresh water use domestically in order to prevent tensions. While also having the diplomatic presence necessary to fight for the fresh water interests of their new state among their neighbours in one of the driest regions on earth. These realities will necessitate cooperation (particularly internationally), and while there are some limited examples of this occuring, it remains unclear if Daesh will be pragmatic enough to be able to put aside ideology and cooperate long-term with those they may deem their enemy in order to keep the taps flowing.

This is a daunting list of tasks for any state, especially a new one. So how well is the new so-called Islamic State getting on with functioning as a state? While it is hard to say for sure, all indications suggest that things are not going as well as hoped. A 2014 report suggested that Daesh seemed to be unable to provide even basic services, with water only available for 3-4 hours a day in Raqqa.[12] Likewise, a later report from August 2015 suggested that services had improved in some areas, however, that the conflict was also taking a heavy toll on the infrastructure and the medium to long-term sustainability of those services was in doubt.[13]

In response the group have taken steps to ensure they meet water and electricity demands, including paying for Syrian and Iraqi government water infrastructure staff to remain at their jobs in Daesh controlled territory, taxing water, and bringing in outside assistance.[14] However, these are short-term solutions and will likely not by itself be enough to provide for the basic needs of the people in the longer term and much more investment in infrastructure and cultivation of domestic talent will be required to provide an adequate supply moving forward.

Indeed, the fact that Daesh appear to be relying so heavily on short-term water management solutions seems to suggest that the group still lacks both expertise in this area, and a dedicated governing body for managing the system and developing long-term policies. While also underlying all of this, is what appears to be a fundamentally unstable cultural dichotomy. With Daeshs’ primary ideological drive seemingly to expand the state through war, at the expense of their civic ambitions to establish a civil Caliphate becoming more secondary.

Concluding remarks

Ultimately, with waters importance in war, also comes its inseparability from peace. And in order for Daesh to survive as a state they must have in place robust and effective agricultural, hydrological, and infrastructure policies to keep the waters flowing and the people alive. While also working to mediate fresh water inequalities within and without their borders. This responsibility (on top of their other duties as a de facto state) will place great strain on Daesh leadership and it seems that they still lack the expertise and stability necessary to effectively deliver on key public services and move beyond short-term solutions.

This matters because while water politics and the use of water as a weapon seem to have been a key asset of Daesh in their early years. As time moves on they will likely find water issues to be much more of a problem than an asset. Indeed, while the inability to provide basic services is not always in in of itself enough to topple governments, and the Daesh regime may indeed be popular with some. Daesh must also know all too well that fresh water shortages can still be a significant contributing factor to instability in a once prosperous region. Despite that, the situation in their territory seems to indicate that Daesh are largely failing both at providing those services in the short-term and in building a system which can ensure stable supplies of water and other services in the long-term, making their future as a state seem as uncertain as the waters of the rivers that support them.



Harris Kuemmerle is a doctoral researcher in the Department of War Studies and the Department of Geography at King’s College London. His research focuses on the role of provincial engagement in the formulation and implementation of national security and management policies along the Indus River. Twitter: @HarrisKuemmerle




[1] 2016, The United Nations World Water Development Report 2016: Water and Jobs

[2] 2013, Impact of the conflict on Syrian economy and livelihoods, Syria Needs Analysis Project, ACAPS

[3] Aron Lund, 2014, Drought, Corruption, and War: Syria’s Agricultural Crisis, Carnegie Endowment

[4] Ian Sample, 2015, Global warming contributed to Syria’s 2011 uprising, scientists claim, The Guardian, 2 March, 2015

[5] John Vidal, “Water supply key to outcome of conflicts in Iraq and Syria, experts warn,” The Guardian, 2 July, 2014

[6] Ibid.

[7] Saira Khan, 2016, The Islamic State and Water Infrastructure, Tel Aviv Notes, Volume 10, Number 3

[8] 2014, Iraq insurgents use water as weapon after seizing dam, Reuters

[9] John Vidal, “Water supply key to outcome of conflicts in Iraq and Syria, experts warn,” The Guardian, July 2, 2014

[10] The Islamic State, “The Flood,” Dabiq, Issue 2, 1435 Ramadan

[1] John Vidal, “Water supply key to outcome of conflicts in Iraq and Syria, experts warn,” The Guardian, July 2, 2014

[12] Liz Sly, The Islamic State is failing at being a state, The Washington Post, December 25, 2014

[13] Laith Alkhouri and Alex Kassirer, 2015, Governing the Caliphate: The Islamic State Picture, Combating Terrorism Center, West Point Military Academy

[14] Saira Khan, 2016, The Islamic State and Water Infrastructure, Tel Aviv Notes, Volume 10, Number 3

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