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Water Wars? Lessons from the Middle East & North Africa
Water Wars? Lessons from the Middle East & North Africa

Iraq: Falluja's Faustian Bargain

An alliance between the local military council and the jihadi ISIL group is keeping the besieging Iraqi army at bay around Falluja, but unless Sunni alienation is addressed, the city risks a new round of devastating conflict.

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Executive Summary

As the campaign for Iraq’s 30 April parliamentary elections heated up, so too did Falluja. The situation there has taken a dramatic turn for the worse since late 2013 when the army, after a long absence, returned in response to protests around Anbar province. With the troops on the outskirts, the jihadi ISIL within and the city’s self-appointed military council trying to walk a fine line between the two, Falluja seems poised to repeat the battles of 2004, when it experienced some of the most intense fighting of the U.S. occupation. The potential for miscalculation, or calculated escalation, is enormous. It is too late for steps that might have been taken to reduce tensions before the elections. Any lasting solution requires addressing the deeper roots of Sunni alienation in a country increasingly gripped by sectarian tension. ISIL’s rise is a symptom, not the main cause, of the poor governance that is the principal reason for Iraq’s instability. The government, UN and U.S. should treat ISIL differently from the military council and Falluja as a whole, rather than bundling them together in an indiscriminate “war on terror”.

When in December 2013 Iraq’s central authorities cleared a year-long sit-in in the city that was demanding better treatment from Baghdad, Falluja’s residents took to the streets. ISIL (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) took advantage of the ensuing chaos, moved forces into the city and asserted it had seized control. The claim was greatly exaggerated: while it raised its black flag above some administration buildings in the city centre, locals blocked most of their forays and forced them to retreat to the outskirts.

But Baghdad had a casus belli: it besieged the city, ignored local attempts to mediate an ISIL withdrawal and threatened to attack. Falluja residents held no brief for ISIL, but their hatred of the Iraqi army – seen as the instrument of a Shiite, sectarian regime, directed from Tehran, that discriminates against Sunnis in general and Anbar in particular – ran even deeper. The city’s rebels struck a Faustian bargain, forming an alliance of convenience with ISIL. The jihadis’ military might kept the army at bay, but their presence justified the government’s claim that the entire city was under jihadi control. A self-reinforcing cycle has taken root: jihadi activity encourages government truculence that in turn requires greater jihadi protection.

Falluja’s fighters and Baghdad’s central authorities both are posing as the country’s true patriots, deriding their adversary as a foreign enemy. ISIL has benefited by renewing its base of support in Iraq, which had been shrinking ever since the sahwa (awakening) turned against al-Qaeda in 2006. With a high profile from the fighting in Syria and superior weaponry, they once again have become a magnet for the country’s disaffected.

The crisis has rescued Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s chances in the parliamentary elections, which, until ISIL entered the picture, appeared grim. His second term is widely considered a disaster: over the past year, the rising tempo of violence across the country, abuses by the security services, massive floods in the capital and the government’s mismanagement of Sunni protests damaged his credibility as a national leader among both Sunnis and Shiites. To save his prospects, he took a page out of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s playbook by exaggerating – and thereby exacerbating – the threat Falluja poses to national stability. It offered more than a diversion: it was an opportunity to shift the terms of debate, rally Shiites against alleged terrorists, divide and neutralise Sunnis, redeem the army’s image as defender of state and nation and lobby the international community – with an often myopic focus on jihadi terrorism – for support.

Al-Qaeda is a serious threat, which is why the government should mobilise all the help it can get. One way to do so and to defuse tension in Anbar, however, would be to distinguish among the elements in the province, in particular between local insurgents with specific grievances and political interests and transnational ISIL jihadis, whose agenda is anathema to the city’s residents. With a cohesive corporate identity unique in Anbar, Falluja would prefer to evict the jihadis if guaranteed it would not face regime attack, much as it was almost a decade ago, when the sahwa joined with the government. But the prime minister has staked his re-election on an anti-terrorism campaign with a crude sectarian cast; neither he nor any part of the Sunni spectrum is likely to retreat. The Muttahidun electoral list, a predominantly Sunni coalition that initially led protests but is now partially aligned with the government, is as invested in the terrorism narrative as the government; its and Maliki’s Sunni adversaries, believing the elections are rigged and they would lose even if they were not, are set to boycott.

The parliamentary elections, at least in Anbar, will not be credible – not only because they are proceeding with the province a virtual war zone, but also because violence, fighting terrorism and a focus on security – the very factors that have undermined the elections – have become integral elements of governance in Iraq. What is needed is a new political compact, something elections are but one way to spur.

The question is what should happen after the poll. In the short term, the government should work with Falluja’s military council – which itself should endeavour to repair its relationship with its Sunni rivals – to push ISIL from the city. In the longer term, the violence in and around Falluja should be seen for what it is: a consequence of the state’s deep political flaws, not their root cause, that needs to be addressed as such. There is no better or more convenient time to begin to do so than in the wake of the elections, when political horse-trading will be the order of the day.

The Royal Engineers Boat Group, a British military unit, patrols the Shatt al-Arab waterway between Iran and Iraq in October 2006. FLICKR/David Axe

Water Wars? Lessons from the Middle East & North Africa

In a keynote speech for the World Water Week in Stockholm on 28 August 2016, our MENA Program Director Joost Hiltermann assesses the role of water in Middle East conflicts – even, potentially, when used in the cultivation of Yemen’s beloved stimulant, qat.

I want to thank the organisers – AGWA, the Rockefeller Foundation, SIWI and UNESCO-IHP – for inviting me to speak here today, and in particular Anders Jägerskog of SIDA at the Swedish Embassy in Amman for his support.

I head the Middle East & North Africa Program at the International Crisis Group, an independent organisation working through field-based analysis and high-level advocacy to prevent and resolve deadly conflict. In that capacity I have asked myself at times: Why haven’t we worked on water and conflict in the region I cover? Aren’t there plenty of reasons to do so? Indeed, conflict over water was practically invented in the Middle East. I’m going to do something now that I don’t often do: I’m going to quote from the Bible. It’s Sunday, after all.

This is from Genesis:

“Isaac’s servants also dug in the Gerar Valley and discovered a well of fresh water. But then the shepherds from Gerar came and claimed the spring. ‘This is our water’, they said, and they argued over it with Isaac’s herdsmen. So Isaac named the well Esek (which means ‘argument’). Isaac’s men then dug another well, but again there was a dispute over it. So Isaac named it Sitnah (which means ‘hostility’). Abandoning that one, Isaac moved on and dug another well. This time there was no dispute over it, so Isaac named the place Rehoboth (which means ‘open space’), for he said, ‘At last the Lord has created enough space for us to prosper in this land’”.

Well, dream on, I say! There appear to be no open spaces left in the Middle East, and “argument” and “hostility” have become the name of the game.

Instead of a sermon, though, I’m going to say a few things about how water relates to the potential for conflict. As an organisation, we have focused on the drivers of, and actors in, “hot” conflict, of which we have plenty in the region right now: Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, always Palestine/Israel, and others. This distracts from the important underlying, longer-term issues that require attention, such as pressures on water resources. One can find examples of disputes over water triggering a “hot” war, but not many, at least not in recent times. The obvious one that comes to mind is the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s and the fight over access to the Shatt al-Arab, the waterway that is the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates as they flow toward the …eh… Persian Gulf? Arab Gulf? You see, there is another problem right there. Let’s just say “the Gulf,” and agree that we all know what we’re talking about.

But other than that war (about which more in a minute), I can’t cite any recent examples. Yet once we take a closer look at the water question, we find interesting things. There is a very good piece in a recent issue of Middle East Report that discusses developments in a place called Wadi Barada in Syria and how these relate to the 2011 popular uprising against the rule of Bashar al-Assad. It turns out that the fact that the river that runs through Wadi Barada dried up in the mid-1990s was a key contributing factor to why that area of the country joined the uprising. It’s clear from this example that any student or activist interested in the relationship between water and conflict would do well to pay close attention to developments such as these well before they lead to violent conflict. More about Wadi Barada in a moment.

What I have learned from my little research before this conference is that, broadly speaking, there are three categories of water and conflict: conflicts over access to water, conflicts over the allocation of water, and the use of water as a weapon in conflict. I will give examples of each, but let me first give some general characteristics about these three categories: (1) issues of access, allocation, and use as weapon can occur in internal and in cross-border situations (the term “transboundary” can denote both internal and cross-border); (2) they can be a cause, a contributing factor, or a pretext for armed conflict; and (3) they can be aggravated by weak governance resulting in poor water management. The question of state policy is important in all cases.

First, access. Conflicts over access usually concern a body of water or a water basin, and are made worse if they have a transboundary dimension. Let’s take another look at the example of the Shatt al-Arab. Access to this waterway has long been a matter of dispute between Iran and Iraq. To Iraq, the river provides critical access to the Gulf; it’s almost existential. To Iran, which has a long coast line on the Gulf, the matter is different, but because it has cities with major oil facilities on the Shatt it needs the river for transportation. Iraq had exclusive access to the Shatt in the early 1970s when Iran, for a number of reasons – of which access to the Shatt was one – began supporting Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq in order to press the Iraqi government to make concessions. Which it did: in 1975 the Shah and Saddam Hussein signed the Algiers Agreement, in which they undertook to share the Shatt by dividing it along the thalweg, the line connecting the river’s lowest points.

In 1980, Iraqi forces invaded Iran by crossing the Shatt into Khuzestan. Saddam wanted to take advantage of post-revolution disarray in Tehran to deal the regime a setback or even bring it to collapse. The issue of the Shatt was merely one of a number of grievances Iraq had vis-à-vis Iran, but Saddam mentioned it as the primary casus belli. It was clearly a pretext for the invasion, not the main reason. (During the war, the Shatt was unnavigable; afterward it was again shared, if uneasily, between the two protagonists.)

So the Iran-Iraq war example offers the following: a conflict at least partly over access to a vital waterway; a combination of cause, contributing factor, and pretext, but arguably mainly the latter; a transboundary/international conflict; and instead of weak governance the actions of two autocratic governments that had little political will and limited capacity to establish mechanisms for resolving disputes.

Second, allocation. Here I go back to the example of the Wadi Barada, which is located between Damascus and the border with Lebanon. Because of the exponential growth of the capital in recent decades, including in the direction of Lebanon in the form of large housing estates for army officers and Alawite and Druze elites, water was diverted from the spring that fed the river flowing through the Wadi Barada in order to provide drinking water for the expanding population, and by the mid-1990s the river had dried up. Perhaps no surprise, therefore, that when protests broke out in southern Syria in the spring of 2011, the people of Wadi Barada quickly joined in, giving voice to their own specific grievances. Their main demands on the government were: (1) restore the river; (2) give access to clean drinking water; and (3) provide fair compensation for the agricultural lands expropriated in the 1970s and 1980s.

The plight of these locals was the direct result of state policies: discriminatory water allocation by an autocratic state and land expropriation, without redress (in the absence of an independent judiciary). After government negotiators met with representatives of the area, they made certain promises, but then nothing happened, the protests continued, and soon government forces came to suppress them. The result was an active and violent revolt, in tune with what was going on elsewhere in Syria, but in the case of Wadi Barada specifically because of what had happened earlier with the land expropriations and water diversion. Discriminatory water allocation therefore was an important contributing factor to the uprising in that part of Syria.

Third, as weapon. I’m not about to throw this bottle of water at you, but … the threat to unleash water collected behind a dam on a city can be quite powerful. The Iraqi regime feared Iran might be planning something along these lines when the latter invaded northern Iraq in the last year of the war, in 1988, aiming for the Darbandikhan dam that sits on the Diyala river; opening it could have flooded Baghdad downstream. Likewise, the Mosul dam became a strategic asset in 2014 after the Islamic State overran Iraqi government positions and captured Mosul and surroundings in June 2014. The risk of waters being unleashed and submerging Mosul threatened to turn a river into a weapon of war. (There has also been a risk of the dam’s collapse as a result of structural faults and lack of maintenance.)

So what is to be done? It is clear that those involved in conflict prevention need to take a closer look at the predictors of deadly conflict when it concerns water disputes:

Firstly, look more closely at disputes over access to water, water allocation, and the potential use of water as a weapon, and assess how they are being managed, by what mechanisms, by what degree of governance, what the recourse is, and so on.

Secondly, analyse the strength and adaptability of institutions and processes of transboundary water management and dispute resolution between riparian governments: how robust are these? Could they break down? How and when?

Thirdly, in times of conflict and crisis: Determine how to achieve water management despite such adverse conditions, and include it as an essential element of a peace settlement and post-conflict peace building.

That’s the agenda we face. Now I’ll end with a short anecdote. Some years ago, I was in Sanaa, and one of the meetings we had was with the minister of water, a very smart and engaging man, who for an hour related to us the difficulties of stamping out the culture of qat chewing, with qat being the kind of rather useless agricultural product whose cultivation was nevertheless consuming inordinate amounts of water. It was getting to be close to 2pm, however, and so rather late in the ministry’s working day, and the minister made it clear that the meeting was over, and it was time for him to hasten home … and preside over his afternoon qat chew.

Cultural habits are deeply ingrained. The misallocation of water for qat production in Yemen is going to run up against more pressing needs for water, and will trigger conflict sooner or later. The current war is not over water, but when it is ended – and let’s hope that moment will come soon – it will be incumbent on policymakers to tackle the knotty qat question, lest Yemen find itself in a Wadi Barada-type of situation sometime down the line.

Thank you.