From hydro-terrorism to ecocide: Weaponising water in war

Illustration - In-depth - Water/war
8 min read
28 June, 2023

As international attention focuses on the Wagner Group’s aborted rebellion in Russia, the disaster following the massive breach of the Kakhovka dam in occupied Ukraine has largely been forgotten.

The deluge, following an explosion in early June, benefitted Moscow, creating a defensive barrier on the eve of Kyiv’s counteroffensive. Paul Josephson, a historian of the Soviet Union, argues that such a tactic fits into Russia’s history of “scorched earth” tactics, or, in this case, “drenched earth” tactics.

“We in Ukraine have become the victims of ecocide,” Maria Marchenko, an independent researcher in Ukraine who was in touch with victims of the downstream flooding, told The New Arab.

Ecocide is an act of punitive political ecology, the indiscriminate targeting of environmental terrain affecting humans, wildlife, soil, water, and/or foliage. Ecocide can employ nature itself to attack nature, such as using water to flood downstream areas in Ukraine, or involve polluting the land with the radioactive detritus of depleted uranium, tactics used by the US and Russia in Iraq and Ukraine, respectively.

"The Middle East has witnessed state-sponsored ecocide and hydro-terrorism conducted by non-state actors, as well as mutually assured hydro-destruction during civil wars"

Ecocide includes but is not limited to weaponising water during conflict. The Middle East has witnessed state-sponsored ecocide and hydro-terrorism conducted by non-state actors, as well as mutually assured hydro-destruction during civil wars.

The latter affects all warring parties within a conflict zone, as in the case of Yemen and Syria, where waterborne diseases such as cholera have emerged.

These events, whether in the Middle East or Ukraine, collectively represent a disturbing military tactic - the weaponisation of water - either polluting it with floods of oil or releasing it to cause deliberate flooding, tragic episodes in a larger environmental history of warfare.

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Ecocide under Saddam Hussein

During the 1991 Gulf War, Saddam Hussein ordered a deliberate oil spill in the Gulf to prevent an amphibious American landing, killing natural wildlife, from fish to maritime birds, in the process.

Following that conflict, Saddam ordered the construction of canals to divert the Tigris and Euphrates rivers from the Iraqi marshes, which provided the perfect base for Iraqi rebels, as government tanks and artillery could not deploy in the watery terrain.  

Even with attempts to restore the marshes after 2003, they have still not reached the levels prior to the 1990s. Saddam’s actions led to the disappearance of several freshwater lakes and increases in soil salinity, making it easier for saltwater intrusion from the Gulf to Basra’s canals and streams as sea-levels rise, continuing 300 kilometers upward through the Shatt al-Arab waterway, killing crops, livestock, and fish in the Marshes.

The disappearance of lakes left basins of dried-up bodies of water that provide the fodder for dust storms, which have been so intense in the last few two years that they persisted over months in Iraq, shutting down air traffic and leading to hospitalisations.

An Iraqi girl stands on dry, cracked earth in the marshes area near the al-Fuhood village, north of the southern city of Basra, on 1 October 2008. [Getty]

The drying up of the marshes has a security dimension as well, as fishermen, farmers, and cattle herders were left unemployed. When Iraqi militias arrived in 2014 offering salaries to fight the Islamic State they found willing recruits, illustrating the link between ecocide and the militarisation of society.

As a result, women in the Marshes were left to deal with the ensuing desertification, salinisation, and the depletion of fish stores and cattle. Many Iraqis have also become internally displaced due to the resulting climate change in the region.

“Losing their livelihood due to climate change has pushed many to migrate to urban centres and live on the edge of society,” Zeinab Shuker, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Sam Houston State University in Texas, told The New Arab.

"The management of water and the ability to provide it to its population and deprive it to its enemies bestowed a form of hydropower on the Islamic State"

The Islamic State's hydro-terrorism

As of 2014, IS controlled several dams in Iraq, deliberately flooding downstream areas as a defensive tactic and establishing a precedent of hydro-terrorism that does not discriminate between combatants and civilians caught up in the torrent. The group also withheld and deprived enemy civilian populations of water, a resource vital for daily survival and irrigation. 

The management of water and the ability to provide it to its population and deprive it to its enemies bestowed a form of hydropower on IS.

In April 2014, IS opened dams south of Fallujah to flood the staging grounds where government forces were besieging the city, displacing 60,000 Iraqis in the process. In early June 2015, IS then closed the gates of a dam in the city of Ramadi, depriving water from downstream areas of Khalidiyya and Habbaniyya, held by pro-government forces.

These tactics caused drought downstream among the predominantly Shia cities of Najaf, Karbala, and Nasiriyya, which depend on the Euphrates for irrigation and drinking water. Reducing the water level of the Euphrates granted the group greater freedom of movement to traverse water arteries, facilitating their ability to carry out attacks on government forces on the opposite bank.

When IS seized Mosul in June 2014, it was feared that it would destroy the dam in its vicinity, creating a scenario where a 15-foot wall of water would crash into Baghdad, potentially killing an estimated 500,000 people. One of the first targets in the US air campaign was IS targets around the dam, enabling Iraqi forces to recapture the site in August 2014.

Mutually assured hydro-destruction

Yemen’s water crisis predates the 2011 uprisings, a result of the mismanagement of water under its former leader Ali Abdullah Saleh. Yemenis also diverted water for the cultivation of the water-intensive narcotic, qat.

The scarcity of water in Yemen and the ensuing displacement of farmers was also one of the factors that contributed to its civil war, putting it on the path to “water bankruptcy”.

All sides in Yemen’s civil war have since sought to manipulate, withhold, and hoard water supplies during sieges.

Since the 2015 Saudi air war, Yemen’s water infrastructure has been damaged or destroyed during the bombing campaign, with reservoirs and sanitation infrastructure hit during air strikes.

Margaret Suter of the Atlantic Council has termed this disturbing trend as “the weaponisation of water.” These attacks have led to a renewed cholera epidemic, a fate that has also befallen Syria, as its water infrastructure has been attacked by all sides.

Cholera, a bacterium, thrives in stagnant, untreated water. Once the bacterium enters the water it affects all sides of a civil war, making the targeting of water facilities a de-facto form of biological warfare spreading an easily transmissible bacterium.

The Houthis, the rebels targeted by Saudi Arabia, have also sought to convey a message of mutually assured water destruction. In March 2019, a Houthi drone flew 130km from the Yemeni border over the Saudi al-Shuqayq water treatment plant, not attacking it, but releasing video footage to show that even this precious resource could be reached.

An explosion in June destroyed the Kakhovka dam in occupied Ukraine. [Getty]

Weaponising water in Israel's military occupation

In the face of climate change, access to water in the future will be one of the most pressing issues in the Middle East, and Israel’s military occupation has long sought domination over the resource.

Water was a key factor in the build-up to the 1967 war between Israel and Arab states, as Tel Aviv sought to divert water from the River Jordan and Sea of Galilee to the Negev, or Naqab, region.

Fatah, the armed faction that now dominates the Palestinian Authority and the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), conducted its first military attack in 1964 on a water pump installation belonging to Israel’s national carrier, Mekorot, as the facility was diverting water from Palestinians.

Following Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza in 1967, it has sought complete control over water resources and water-related infrastructure, supplying its illegal settlements and agricultural industries with water while Palestinians face severe shortages.

As a result, an average Israeli consumes around 300 litres of water per day compared to 73 for Palestinians, below the recommended 100 litres per capita. Banned from drilling new water wells, installing pumps, or deepening existing wells, Palestinians are forced to buy water from Israel’s Mekorot company.

"Access to water in the future will be one of the most pressing issues in the Middle East, and Israel's military occupation has long sought domination over the resource"

The Gaza Strip, under blockade, faces an even more dire situation. Like Basra in Iraq, salinisation has affected its underwater aquifers due to depletion, partly from an Israeli well adjacent to Gaza. Around 90-95 per cent of the water supply in the besieged enclave is contaminated and unfit for human consumption.

Just like the wars in Syria and Yemen, conflicts between Israel and Hamas have led to damage to Gaza’s wells, water reservoirs, wastewater treatment plants, desalination plants, water pipes, and pumping stations. This destruction has led to diseases like cholera, hepatitis A, acute diarrhoea, and typhoid fever.

While ‘scorched earth’ strategies have been a hallmark of warfare since time immemorial, depriving the enemy of food and water through fire or poisoning wells, ‘drenched earth’ tactics have also been employed, from the deliberate flooding caused by IS or the mayhem and havoc that resulted from breaching the dam in Ukraine.

It will take Ukraine years to rebuild the dam, and lands in the south of Ukraine may dry out, just as happened in the south of Iraq as a result of Saddam Hussein’s actions.

Ibrahim Al-Marashi is an associate professor of history at California State University San Marcos. He is co-author of Iraq's Armed Forces: An Analytical History and The Modern History of Iraq.

Follow him on Twitter: @ialmarashi