Water as a Weapon

This article will deal with the specific issue of the water scarcity crisis of Aleppo (since December 2016) that affects more than 1.5 million people. The article will deal with the current crisis as well as the previous cases during the SCW.


The liquid that sustains life on planet earth has been used as a weapon during conflicts long time before the SCW erupted. Although humans can adapt to the extreme scarcity of almost all resources, there are some limits. Layana Darwish, a former inhabitant of Aleppo, commented:

“But water is a different issue – how can you possibly live without it?” (1) to Reuters in 2015.

Water is one of those limits -another one is food. Aleppo gets its water supply through a large complex connection of aqueducts and canals that go from the west bank of Lake Assad (75 km to the east of the city). The most important of them is the Al-Khafsa Water Treatment Plant which is divided upon 3 main locations. The first one is the Raw water intake (location); the second one is the 1st part of -out of 4- the project (location) where water is treated; the third location is the greatest of the project which includes the three remaining ones. There is another strategic location a little bit southern to the Al-Khafsa one which pumps water from the Lake Assad to the “al-Jer canal” (location).

After knowing the situation of this essential resource, we proceed to analyze the current crisis.

2017-02-22 - Water Final .jpg
Day situation 22 February 2017 – Via Liveuamap

Both vital infrastructures are in the hands of the so-called Islamic State, and the SAA is at least 30 km away from Lake Assad.

On December 30th, 2016, the first headlines appeared claiming that the water supply had been cut by the Islamic State and has been running “spontaneously” since that first report. This forced Aleppo citizens to rely upon local wells (which are under high pressure due to the different droughts of the past years) and purchased water (which prices have skyrocketed). Even though the UN has installed 61 tanks and rehabilitated an additional 100 wells in the city (additional to the 90 state-owned wells), water supply proved insufficient.(3) Apart from these services, we must not forget the role played by private tankers who sell water.

Now having said that, add that almost all wells depend on diesel generators or electricity; add also the nationwide lack of oil and energy production and you will have a humanitarian disaster that requires urgent solution. Complexity arises when, since the beginning of the war, all sides relied on the others to have access to basic resources such as water or electricity. You can have access to one of those cases of strange symbiosis between
ISIS and the Syrian government here

In this case, the water supply was cut, according to Aleppo governor Hussein Diab,  in order to “undermine the local’s supportive stance towards the Syrian Army”(4, 5). This retaliation can be a response to the
SAA advances in Eastern Aleppo governorate. Another part of the consequences of this advances are the attempts of the Islamic State to flood the villages around the al-Jer canal to stop the SAA advances.

There are some old cases in which water was used as a weapon to demoralize or as a tool to put pressure on populations:

  • Aleppo,  2014 – 2 Pumping stations stopped functioning due to Rebels (Jabhat al-Nusra) damaging the facilities, which lead to a crisis where up to 1.5 million people were left without water. The rhetoric within the city persisted until the SAA was able to fully retake the city the past December 2016. 
  • Damascus, 2016 – Water spring facility in Wadi Barada (W. of Damascus) was destroyed by an unknown actor (although Bellingcat proved how the SAA destroyed the facility) affecting 5.5 million people -it supplies approx. 50% of the water flow to the capital. This time the water was used as a tool to justify the final assault on the village -who ended up retaken by the SAA.
  • ISIS controls 6 of the eight major dams in Iraq and Syria. The Islamic State threatened to destroy the dams or by actually poisoning the water with crude oil -like in Tikrit in 2014.(6)

Intellectual credited property used may vary from an edition to edition.

Feel free to voice your opinion in the comments section below, constructive criticism is welcomed.

For those of you interested, you can follow me on my personal, controversial twitter @alextorrell where I constantly tweet about different issues and conflicts.

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