Using water as a weapon of war in a world of water crises
Right on the tip of the African Peninsula lies South Africa’s second largest city, Cape Town. It is famed world over for its aesthetic and colourful city structure; its vast beaches; its florally adorned coastline, and other attractions. However, a dark fate looms over the horizon. In a mere few months, Cape Town is set to gain a new title: The World’s First Major City To Run Dry. The citizens of Cape Town face a highly dystopian reality, one where they must restrict their water use to only 13.2 gallons per day (in comparison, the average American uses around 80-100 gallons of water a day). Scientists have termed the fateful day, when the city’s water finally runs out, as Cape Town’s “Day Zero”, and this day falls on April 12, 2018.
Cape Town is far from being the only city in the world that is hanging on the edge of the cliff of water security by its fingernails. All over the world, every country has felt the tightening of the leash of water availability and usage; and developing countries, more so. The World Health Organisation predicts that by 2025, half of the world’s population will be living in water stressed areas (where the demand for water will exceed the amount available for use). It is a terrifyingly dystopian reality, but not entirely unexpected.
This water scarcity that the world is facing affects much more than agricultural production. Many countries face a water crisis because they have large populations, but few sources of water. In Developing countries, people can spend up to half a day every day for water. Expensive prices of water also force families to turn to unsafe, private water vendors. Water that is unsafe and not readily available affects the health and productivity of the people, and the economic growth of the region. In addition, contaminated water sources are breeding grounds for diseases such as Typhoid, Cholera, Polio, and Diarrhoea- most of which are otherwise easily preventable.
In 2010, the UN General Assembly recognized the human right to “sufficient, continuous, safe, acceptable, physically accessible, and affordable water for personal and domestic use”. When this right is violated by the scarcity of water brought about by climate change, it is difficult to place the blame on a single person, or entity. It is different, however, in the face of a slightly different problem the world is facing; the use of water as a weapon in conflicts. The necessity of water for survival makes it easy for one to control people where it is scarce. After all, in the land struck by drought, the one with their hand on the tap is king.
History has seen many examples of water being weaponised. In the 1990’s, following the Gulf War, Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq built dams, canals, and other resources to drain the Iraqi marshlands. Why? To punish the Shias who lived there, and the Marsh Arabs who protected them. The government blamed the Shias for the 1991 rebellions, and had labelled them “hostile”. The success of the Iraqi Government’s plan to drive out the Shias resulted not only in the ecocide of the unique marshland ecosystem but also in the eradication of an indigenous population via the destruction of their economic livelihoods and environment. In addition to this induced drought, the government banned the transport of food or medicines into the marshlands, deliberately destroyed homes and property, and shelled people’s homes. The Iraqi refugees who had fled to Iran later mentioned in an interview with the UN that the primary cause for their flight was the drainage of the marshlands.
The water crisis, thus, plays a significant role in conflicts in developing countries. While the crisis may not have a hand in causing these conflicts, water shortages and the control and weaponisation of water sources can significantly exacerbate problems.
One such example is Syria, currently in the grips of a violent Civil War that has already claimed more than 300, 000 lives. It began in 2011 with the Syrians protesting against the repressive rule of their President, Bashar al-Assad. The government retaliated, and both sides took up arms. The violence escalated into the civil war it is today, where the rebel forces and the Syrian government fight for control of the country.
Of the rebel’s complaints against the Syrian President, some addressed the country’s economic crisis, which had been attributed to the decrease in food production and increase in the prices of grains in the country. Both issues could have been caused, at least in part, by the devastating multi-seasonal drought the country had been facing since 2006. This significant lack of water made it easy for the warring factions to weaponize it, and utilize it to their own ends.
For instance, in November 2012, the Syrian rebels took hold of Tishrin Hydroelectric Dam on Euphrates River. As a major source of electricity for many Syrians, the seizing of this dam was a win for the rebels. Later, in December 2016, the Syrian government attacked Ein el-Fijeh water facility with barrel bombs (which are improvised explosive devices shaped like barrels). Considered a war crime by the UN, this act cut off water flow to Damascus, resulting in a water crisis. In addition, there have been over 30 deliberate water cuts in Aleppo, Damascus, Hama, Raqqa and Dara, where water pumps were destroyed (and, according to claims, water sources were contaminated by fuel).
The Islamic State (ISIS) has also used water from the Taqba Dam in Raqqa (Northern Syria) to control Syria. In December 2016, the ISIS cut off water to Aleppo. Aleppo, already having been devastated by the fighting it had seen, succumbed to the Syrian government regime soon after. They also established Raqqa’s Credit Bank as the tax authority, and collected money for the usage of certain amenities, including the use of water.
The water scarcity in Syria already poses huge risks for children. Many children risk their lives to go collect water for their families. In 2015 alone, 11 children were killed collecting water. Collecting water also interrupts their schooling. When water supplies were cut, many families resorted to buying water from cheaper alternatives such as private vendors, which had the potential of being contaminated, posing a huge risk to their health.
The devastated health-care in Syria also left a large number of its citizens vulnerable to easily preventable water-borne diseases like Poliomyelitis. The disease thrives in unsanitary conditions and contaminated water, but is preventable through immunization. Measles also spread in Syria; it is also easily preventable through vaccination. Unfortunately, violence towards the medical staff constantly hampers the immunization process.
In a similar fashion to that of Cape Town, Yemen was warned in 2015 that it would run out of water by 2017. Affected simultaneously by the violent conflicts and a growing population, a water crisis seemed likely. And while it is not at the forefront of the war in Yemen, the water crisis has definitely been felt in its effects: Yemen is suffering from the worst Cholera epidemic ever recorded, according to the charity Oxfam.
Yemen’s civil war began during the transition of power from its former president to its current President, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi. Houthi rebels used the transitory instability to take over parts of the country, as well as the capital. The violence between the two groups, the government and the rebels, was joined by the Saudi-led coalition, backed by the US, UK and France, who are fighting on the side of Mr. Hadi’s government. The war, among other problems, has caused a large humanitarian problem for its citizens. Around 17 million Yemen citizens depend on humanitarian aid from the UN for survival. However, the Saudi-led coalition is making it very difficult for this aid to reach its intended recipients.
First, the coalition destroyed the central electricity grid supplying the capital Sana’a in April 2015. Without electricity, the city’s wastewater treatment plant was forced to shut down, worsening the unsanitary conditions. Furthermore, the coalition imposed a strict naval blockade on Yemen, which barely allows any food, medicine or fuel to pass through. Without wastewater treatment and medicine, Yemen has become the perfect breeding ground for water-borne diseases. In addition, more than half the health facilities in Yemen shut down in 2016. Such factors have led to the current situation Yemen suffers from: in October of 2017, there were 777,229 suspected cases of Cholera, and 2,134 Cholera-related deaths.
The lack of water in Yemen has also had another devastating effect. According to the UN in November 2017, there is a possibility that Yemen could suffer “the largest famine the world has not seen for many decades”.
The most devastating aspect of the situations in both Syria and Yemen is the ease of preventability of all the diseases being spread. The key factors to preventing the spread of both Polio and Cholera, for instance, are the use of safe drinking water, good hygiene, and basic sanitation. Immunization against Polio involves a series of vaccines which provide protection for a lifetime. Cholera can be cured by the prompt administration of ORS (Oral Rehydration Salts) (which usually need to be given dissolved in water). Both these diseases are so easily preventable that they simply do not exist anymore in developed countries.
The lack of water in developing countries has, therefore, led to power struggles that have inadvertently (and in some cases, intentionally) resulted in droughts, famines, and the breakdown of health structures. Conflict has added to the decrease in sanitation and contamination of water sources. All these factors have culminated in the creation of a weapon that harms every citizen of country it is used against, killing them slowly but surely. The diseases that spread pose a threat to the health of every single person on the planet.
Like most weapons, we must attempt to use the water scarcity to the most positive degree. Rather than as a noose around our necks, countries can use the lack of the water as a rope to bind themselves closer together. With cooperation and communication, conflicting parties can perhaps agree on an approach that prioritizes the health and safety of their citizens, and can focus, instead, on safeguarding their current water sources and planning for a future that hopefully, does not include a Day Zero.
Author: Ishana Sundar