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In Arid Iraq, Control Of Water Is Part Of ISIS Arsenal


In the desert, water is life, and that's especially true in the areas of Iraq and Syria controlled by the Islamic State. Two great rivers - the Tigris and Euphrates - both cross through territories under ISIS control. Those rivers are a source of drinking water, irrigation and electricity for people in the region. ISIS has been struggling to gain control of water so they can use it as a weapon. Indeed some of the most intense fighting has been for control of the most Mosul dam, the largest in Iraq. Matthew Machowski is a Middle East security research fellow at Queen Mary University of London and joins us from London. Welcome.


SHAPIRO: Does ISIS have an overarching strategy for how it wields water as a weapon, or is it simply a matter of denying enemies water and providing it to friends?

MACHOWSKI: Water is obviously one of the most important commodities in the Middle East and particularly in Syria and in Iraq. ISIS has used water since the beginning of its campaign. And we have to remember that in order to create a state, one doesn't only control a geographical area. But you have to establish the industrial base behind it and the infrastructure. And water infrastructure together with electricity infrastructure is obviously the most important.

SHAPIRO: How do you compare the value of a water target to something like an oil refinery?

MACHOWSKI: Both are extremely important, but if we consider the fact that Iraq and Syria are perhaps one of the world's most arid countries, control of water is absolutely fundamental. And control of water can lead to various security hazards, safety hazards for the rest of downstream Iraq. And should water be cut off to, for instance, Baghdad or the southern parts of Iraq, then this would create a massive humanitarian crisis.

SHAPIRO: So you've talked about ISIS denying water to its enemies. But in areas that ISIS controls, has the group also taken steps to establish systems of clean drinking water and sewage control and things like that that are necessary for a productive society?

MACHOWSKI: There was a time after ISIS took control of Mosul that majority of the Mosul population fled. But weeks later, a lot of them actually returned back to Mosul when they realized that both electricity and water production to the city was reestablished. And yes, indeed, this is used by ISIS to take advantage of that local population for their own purposes. Similarly, ISIS has used water in a very interesting way, whereby after having left some of the villages, they continue to control the use of water within the village by cutting off and shutting off electricity, which was absolutely necessary for drawing that water from local wells. And in fact, when the Kurdish population started asking ISIS to return the electricity to the village in order for them to be able to use water, ISIS fighters came back to them and said that this can indeed be done, should they wish to pay for it. So in fact, in certain places, ISIS started charging for the use of water in villages that they have actually already even abandoned.

SHAPIRO: That's Matthew Machowski, research fellow at Queen Mary University of London. Thanks so much.

MACHOWSKI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.