War and Water

The tide of war and peace often turns on water, as is the case with the conflict in Iraq and Syria against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). These countries lack water security, which is a condition where individuals and nations have access to an adequate quantity and quality of water with acceptable costs and risks. The conflict against ISIL illustrates why water security should have a higher priority in U.S. domestic and foreign policy, as water security is a necessary precondition for peace and stability. Without water security, water often becomes a strategic target in war, either as a potential weapon or as a symbol of political legitimacy.

For example, in Iraq, the Mosul Dam has become a both a security threat and symbol of the shifting balance of power. The Mosul Dam is the largest dam in Iraq, providing electricity and drinking water to the 1.7 million residents of the city of Mosul. In August, ISIL took control of this strategically vital asset. Kurdish forces recently retook control of the Mosul Dam from ISIL, with assistance from U.S. airstrikes. Control of the dam may lend greater political legitimacy to the Kurds and protection for the citizens of Mosul, but protecting the dam from further attacks will be difficult given the dam's history of instability.

The Mosul Dam is only one example of the role of water in the war against ISIL. ISIL's growing influence in Syria was precipitated by one of the worst droughts in modern history. The drought had a destabilizing effect on President Bashar al-Assad's regime, helping ISIL consolidate power in some Syrian cities. To counter ISIL's growing political power, which has been achieved in part by improving water services to residents in drought ravaged regions, Assad's troops have targeted ISIL-controlled water infrastructure. This connection between water and war is not uncommon. It is no coincidence that the Taliban took power in Afghanistan at the same time as the Kabul River experienced a severe drought.

The role of water security could be critical in other current or potential future conflicts. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has long included a major water dispute component, including recent debates that raged on whether Israel could cut off water supplies to Gaza without violating human rights. Ukraine has cut off water supplies from the North Crimean Canal, which provides 85 percent of fresh water to the region now controlled by the Russian Federation. In Kashmir, India developed dams on the Indus River, on territory that it is currently in dispute over with its neighbor Pakistan, leading protestors to refrain, "Water will flow, or blood will flow." New regimes in Egypt, Libya, and South Sudan will seek to establish legitimacy and security through water.

One of the United States' main foreign policy priorities should be to advance water security. The U.S. should partner with allies and development banks to establish a global water fund used to finance water infrastructure. Improved water access would help mitigate droughts like the one in Syria and help avoid catastrophic public health crises like the current Ebola outbreak. Improved water access will also enhance the political legitimacy of regimes committed to the rule of law. Droughts, famines, and plagues destabilize governments, and investments in water security will avoid or mitigate those disasters. The global water fund would oversee maintenance of safeguards to ensure public accountability, stakeholder participation, sustainable water development, and affordable water pricing.

A global water fund would also direct investments to protect water infrastructure, both domestically and internationally, from attack. The global water fund finance and provide expertise in both conventional security measures, as well as cybersecurity. Simple, inexpensive measures like firewalls and stronger passwords could yield enormous security benefits for water infrastructure. Such investments will prevent water infrastructure from being exploited as a weapon. The global water fund could also provide a dispute resolution forum for projects involving internationally-shared water resources to prevent water disputes from escalating into violent conflicts.

A global water fund could have long-lasting domestic benefits as well. Investing in domestic water security has obvious benefits, from national security of critical infrastructure against terrorist attacks to mitigating the ongoing drought in California. But investments in global water security will have important consequences for domestic policy as well. The current immigration crisis in the U.S. is in part an example of what mankind has done for thousands of years - pursue water security. Immigrants may say that they are pursuing peace or economic opportunities, but peace and economic opportunities are outgrowths of water security. If the U.S. desires peace abroad, it would do better to invest in water security than in weapons. And if the U.S. desires to resolve its immigration crisis, it would do better to invest in the water security of its neighbors than in walls on its borders.

Rhett B. Larson is a law professor at Arizona State University's Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law.