Water as an instrument of war

ISIS terrorists are currently taking advantage of the high water levels on the Euphrates in their fight against the government in Baghdad. For its part, the Iraqi government is also resorting to inhumane methods. By Birgit Svensson in Baghdad

By Birgit Svensson

Events have proved devastating. Some 60,000 people between Fallujah and Abu Ghraib have lost their homes, their harvest, their animals and their livelihood. Hundreds of thousands have fled Anbar Province. The reason is the sheer amount of water that for weeks has been making life impossible in Iraq's largest province. Large swathes of land are inundated, and the water is only slowly receding.

The chairman of the provincial council in Ramadi announced that 49 schools have been closed and exams postponed. In addition, 10,406 houses were destroyed and 80,000 "donum" of agricultural land (an Iraqi donum roughly corresponds to 2,500 square metres) has been rendered unusable.

"This is the worst flood catastrophe since the 1950s," declares Ezhar Ibrahim, a local farmer. Despite the catastrophe, he can still count himself lucky: he managed to harvest his melons in time, just before the floodwaters came. Now his fields are also under water. "What they are doing to us is a crime," he cries in despair, counting the little money that he earned from selling his melons on the roadside in Baghdad.

Water as a means of war

Aun Abdullah (photo: Birgit Svensson)
Aun Abdullah, spokesman for the Ministry of Water, is furious about the flood catastrophe in Iraq, calling it "a crime against humanity"

The "they" he refers to are the Iraqi government and ISIS, the Sunni terrorist organisation and off-shoot of al-Qaida, which for months has been embroiled in a bitter fight with government troops and tribal leaders to gain supremacy in Anbar Province. The farmer's accusations are not without reason, as both sides have been using the flood of the Euphrates as a weapon in the conflict. Water has become an instrument of war.

Aun Abdullah, spokesman for the Ministry of Water, is certain that the floodwaters will not reach Baghdad. "We will keep the water back." Abdullah becomes furious when asked about the flood catastrophe. "This is a crime against humanity!" claims the 68-year-old Iraqi. He has been working in the field of water resources for 46 years, first in Nasiriyah, his native city in southern Iraq, and then in Basra as director of the Office for Agricultural Irrigation. Now, the Ministry of Water in Baghdad has dragged him out of retirement to help find a solution to the catastrophe in Anbar.

Dependant on the Euphrates

Experts are a rare commodity in post-Saddam Iraq. During the civil war between 2006 and 2007, many experts were either killed or fled the country. In late April, terrorists belonging to ISIS closed the floodgates to a dam on the Euphrates above the city of Fallujah. In doing so, they left ten million people without water. While Baghdad gets its drinking water from the Tigris, the cities of Karbala, Najaf, Babylon, and Nasiriyah depend on the Euphrates River as their source of water.

The Sunni terrorist organisation, which for months has been conducting a growing number of attacks against the Shia population, has no qualms about resorting to any means in order to put pressure on the Shia head of government in Baghdad. Fallujah is firmly in the hands of ISIS, as is the Baghdad suburb of Abu Ghraib, where the notorious prison has since been emptied, and, since 11 June, Iraq's second city, Mosul.

Using water as its weapon, ISIS intended to impose a drought on the cities of Karbala and Najaf, holy sites of the Shia, thereby expanding their terrorist activities in the south. In addition, the terrorists intended to severely disrupt the parliamentary elections on 30 April. They succeeded in their goal: only a third of polling stations in Anbar Province opened due to the water-related catastrophe.

Abdullah and his colleagues in the Ministry of Water eventually made a momentous decision.  They opened all of the floodgates at the dam near Haditha further north on the Euphrates. As a result, the water level rose drastically and reached the high water mark at the closed floodgates in Fallujah. The water subsequently overflowed the banks of the Euphrates, surged into the irrigation canals and forced the porous walls to burst.

Map of the floods in Anbar Province (source: Google Earth)
This map shows the extent of flooding in Anbar province. So far, over 200,000 Iraqis have fled Anbar province. According to the UN, this figure is as high as 400,000

Waves of water and refugees

"To the north of Fallujah, there is flooding; to the south, drought," says Abdullah, who does not wish to comment on the political dimension of the decision, yet laments the deplorable conditions in the Sunni province, where the terrorists are seemingly free to come and go and to engage in lively contact with other extremist groups from Syria. "They are driving the farmers out of their houses and setting up camp there."

Government critics maintain that the flooding was specifically provoked in order to limit the movements of the ISIS terrorists and to stop their advance on Baghdad. Furthermore, according to an official close to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, the catastrophic flooding will result in diminished support for the terrorists because without a certain level of support from the population, ISIS will not be able to maintain its operational base in Anbar. Given the events of the past week, this does not seem to be the case.

The nightmare of Fallujah

Fallujah was an American nightmare. It was here that the US troops suffered their greatest losses. Then the military struggle for the city became the litmus test for the Iraqi army, which no longer had the on-site support of the Americans.

Before the events of this week, Maliki's strategy seemed to be successful. Given the floods in "their" territory, the ISIS terrorists reopened one of the ten floodgates. Abdullah reported that his water authority was registering a flow of 200 cubic meters of water per second. In addition, between 60 and 70 cubic meters was flowing from the canals, all of which eased the situation somewhat.

He freely admits, however, that 500 cubic meters per second alone are needed to meet agricultural water requirements. "You can well imagine what this means for farmers." It will take some time before the full extent of this catastrophe becomes known. Right now, it is simply too dangerous for Abdullah and his colleagues from the Ministry of Water to travel to Anbar.

Birgit Svensson

© Qantara.de 2014

Translated from the German by John Bergeron

Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/Qantara.de