’Weaponizing Water’ panelists discuss benefits of hydrodiplomacy and dangers of hydrowarfare

Water weaponizing — damming rivers to hoard water for upstream users or deny it to downstream users — goes back centuries. But panelists at Norwich University’s recent Military Writers’ Symposium said sophisticated tools and global warming’s ravages have reduced water stores and intensified weaponizing’s global threat.

The Oct. 8 “Weaponizing Water” panel discussion was the centerpiece of the two-day symposium, presented by the John and Mary Frances Patton Peace and War Center and the Center for Global Resilience and Security. (See video here.) William Lyons ’90, a retired U.S. Army Reserve colonel and Center for Global Resilience and Security senior fellow, moderated.

The panelists, Wilson Center Senior Fellow Sherri Goodman, 2020 Colby Book Award winner Adam Higginbotham, engineer and author Dr. Nadhir Al-Ansari and global security expert Dr. David Kilcullen, said the United States can lead in pivotal water agreements, but must devote the money and personnel to do so.

“We should be concerned about a world in which water’s becoming increasingly scarce and millions more are living in water scarcity. The U.S. should be concerned because instability knows no borders.” Sherri Goodman, Wilson Center senior fellow

Goodman and the panel said water weaponization has manifested profoundly across the Middle East, especially along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers during military conflicts involving Iraq and Syria. A particular example of water weaponizing, she said, was the Islamic State’s 2014 seizure of the Mosul Dam, which houses a 750-megawatt power station and provides electricity and water to 1.7 million Mosul residents. (One average megawatt provides enough electricity to power 1,000 homes.)

As the BBC reported, the dam holds back over 12 billion cubic meters of water that are crucial for irrigation for farming in Iraq’s western Nineveh province. When the Mosul Dam was seized, Foreign Policy’s Keith Johnson wrote that political observers feared the Islamic State could flood farmland and disrupt drinking water supplies as it did earlier in the year with a smaller dam near Fallujah.

Water weaponization has also intensified across northern Africa, Goodman said, citing the militant Islamic group Boko Haram’s withholding water from Nigerian innocents  and around the drying Lake Chad basin.

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During the Oct. 8 panel discussion, Wilson Center Senior Fellow Sherri Goodman said water weaponization has manifested profoundly across the Middle East, especially along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers during military conflicts involving Iraq and Syria. (Screenshot from video.)

Meanwhile, Al-Ansari said the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs has estimated that dam building by Iran and Turkey has reduced water flow into Iraq by more than 40 percent. Furthermore, he said, the United Nations has estimated that the Tigris and Euphrates rivers could be completely dry by 2040 given the compounded effect of climate change, reduced upstream supply and increase in domestic and industrial use.

Water salinity in the region has also increased dangerously, Al-Ansari said. He cited an International Organization of Migration report that showed water scarcity linked to high salinity or waterborne disease displaced 21,314 Iraqis from the nation’s central and southern governorates.

Climate change will worsen the already strapped water supply, Al-Ansari said; data suggest rainfall will decrease 15% to 30% in the Tigris-Euphrates region, cutting river flow by 30% to 72%. Models suggest what rain comes will come in short intense bursts that will spark floods.

“There is plenty of friction and competition to achieve water security,” he said.

Kilcullen said four trends — population growth, accelerated urbanization, littoralization (costal economic development and urbanization) and connectedness — threaten national security, and that water figures in the first three. In coastal areas, he said, clean water directly affects whether growing cities and concentrating populations can thrive and survive.

Pivotal miltary tactic

Kilcullen added that water denial has been a pivotal military tactic. By cutting off water supplies, Japan captured Hong Kong in two days in December 1941. In July 1996, he said, a cease-fire between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam was shaken when the Tigers shut down the Mavil Aru’s sluice gates, cutting water to 15,000 villages and 60,000 people. The government launched an offensive to crush the Tamil Tigers and a full-scale war ensued.

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Dr. David Kilcullen, a professor at Arizona State University in the United States and the University of New South Wales in Australia, said water crises can create immediate life-and-death peril. (Screenshot from video.)

Goodman said the United States has a Global Water Strategy, issued in 2017 by the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development. The plan, featuring contributions from more than 17 U.S. government agencies and departments, lays out four interrelated objectives for a more water-secure world: increase access to sustainable safe drinking water and sanitation services, and promote hygiene; protect freshwater resources; promote cooperation on shared waters; and strengthen water governance and financing.

Goodman called the plan “a reasonably good document” for integrating water security into national defense, recognizing water-sharing agreements and considering hydrodiplomacy. However, she said, there hasn’t been a robust implementation strategy and America’s diplomatic ranks have thinned in recent years. In January, Business Insider columnist Brett Bruen cited State Department Bureau of Human Resources data showing a drop of 100 U.S. diplomatic officials, called generalists, and a decline of more than 160 diplomatic support staff, called specialists, since September.

Costs of leadership

Water leadership will also require money and cooperation. The U.S. Agency for International Development spent $500 million on water-related activities in 2015, the latest year with available data, the water journalism site Circle of Blue reported. In its Achieving Abundance Working Paper, the World Resources Institute, a nonprofit research group, estimated it would cost $1.04 trillion annually, about 1% of global gross domestic product, to deliver sustainable water management globally through 2030.

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Dr. Nadhir Al-Ansari, an engineer and author, cited a United Nations report estimating that because of global warming and dam building the Tigris and Euphrates rivers could be completely dry by 2040. (Screenshot from video.)

“We should be concerned about a world in which water’s becoming increasingly scarce and millions more are living in water scarcity,” Goodman said. “The U.S. should be concerned because instability knows no borders.”

Without water, Kilcullen said city growth will halt, and people from parched rural areas will flood into cities to seek water. Water lack also makes fighting off the coronavirus harder, as Arab News reported this week, highlighting fighting in northern Syria, where Turkish occupation forces cut off the water supply from the Alouk pumping station, which supplies nearly 1 million people in Hasakah with drinking water.

Water stands as a sine qua non life sustainer, Kilcullen suggested. A city lacking electricity will be uncomfortable, Kilcullen said, especially in extreme heat. A few people may die, but the crisis is relatively limited, he said. A city lacking food also won’t face an immediate crisis, he said, people can manage a couple of weeks before the problem turns acute.

“But if you don’t have access to water, you have to achieve some sort of access within 24 hours,” Kilcullen said, “or you’re going to die.”

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