Aug 11, 2015 | 09:00 GMT

2 mins read

Using Water as a Weapon in Syria

The Tabqa Dam, Syria.
(Wikimedia Commons)

Years of vicious warfare and a lack of investment and maintenance have taken a severe toll on water infrastructure across Syria. The conflict's scale made it inevitable that piped water would either be intermittent or simply unavailable across vast regions. Syrians have had to adapt as best as possible, relying on wells, bottled or trucked-in water, or even untreated river water. Though humanitarian organizations seek to provide clean water, much of the population still has limited access to clean water supplies. Unsurprisingly, disease is spreading as people are increasingly exposed to water-borne pathogens.

Water can also be used as weapon of war, though rarely a decisive one. Whether withheld or unleashed in torrents, water often proves indiscriminate in its effects. Primarily for this reason, there have been numerous local understandings between rebel and government forces to keep water infrastructure running to support civilian populations. For example, both loyalist and rebel fighters have long maintained agreements in and around the cities of Aleppo and Damascus whereby water would continue to flow, often in exchange for cease-fire pledges or other things of value. The Islamic State, by contrast, has willingly breached dams or overflowed water systems in militarily strategic regions, something most apparent in Iraq. But even the Islamic State has largely sought to maintain water flows to bolster its efforts to play the role of a government.

There are three main areas of weakness in Syria that could be easily exploited. Any deliberate interference with the pumping stations in Aleppo, the Tabqa Dam along the Euphrates River, and the water flow to Damascus from the Qalamoun Mountains — especially from the Wadi Barada source, to the north and west — could drastically alter the water supply in Syria. Fuel shortages already impede the effectiveness and productivity of existing pumping stations, reducing their outflow. The Tabqa Dam generates electricity and ensures Lake Assad stays at sustainable levels; prioritizing the supply of electricity over the preservation of water may result in an unsustainable drop in the level of Lake Assad, threatening its long-term ability to deliver water. Finally, Wadi Barada is in a disputed area between rebel and loyalist forces, and could easily be exploited and used as a tool in future conflicts.

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