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Euphrates: River of hope or hate?

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James Denselow

As we peer through the fog of war into the heart of the Middle East we see ISIL on the back foot in Iraq and on the front foot in Syria. This month, the loss of Tikrit and simultaneous gains in the heart of Damascus highlighted the different battlespaces that are in operation across the two countries.

The disconnect between the US-led ISIL strategy that supports the government in Baghdad and one that avoids dealing with Damascus will likely sustain this momentum as the Iraqi army pushes towards Mosul. However, unless a unified strategy is agreed for the two countries, then ISIL will continue to exploit the incoherence in such a dual approach to its advantage.


One key element that unites the two countries regardless of the politics of the moment is the Euphrates River, a 2,700km long waterway whose history and seeming permanence dwarfs the volatile changes in human behaviour around its banks.


Yet as the insecurity in Iraq and Syria continues to bleed the countries dry of people one of their major rivers is sagging under the weight of misuse and conflict.

Since 1972 the overexploitation of the Euphrates River, an artery that connects and defines much of the geography of Iraq and Syria, has led to a 40 percent reduction in the amount of flow.

The need for cooperation along the river has never been more vital. Unifying the “right” policy towards the river is in the interest of all parties regardless of their politics, because without it, large areas of territory will increasingly be unfit for human habitation.

Historic overexploitation is being accelerated by the violence that has gripped the region. Michael Stephens, deputy director of the Royal United Services Institute think-tank in Qatar, explained to the Guardian last year that “we are seeing a battle for control of water. Water is now the major strategic objective of all groups in Iraq. It’s life or death. If you control water in Iraq you have a grip on Baghdad”.

Just because ISIL cannot behead the Euphrates should not mean that it is only at the fringes of our attention considering the terrible scenarios facing 27 million people if depletion continues to the point of exhaustion.


This month Chatham House’s Nouar Shamout and Glada Lahn published an in-depth report looking into the state of the river highlighting how control over 32 dams and barrages built over the past 50 years is contested and sections of the river are held by both state and non-state actors.

ISIL militants have used water to flood their enemies or to restrict supplies of food, they have even directly threatened Turkey with violence as they swore to “liberate” Istanbul in order to reopen a dam on the Euphrates.

ISIL may not respect the colonial-drawn borders, but neither does nature. According to former US intelligence officer Jennifer Dyer, water may be “the key to who controls Iraq in [the] future”.

The Euphrates is the main source of water for 27 million people across the three countries and such is its historical importance that it should perhaps not be a surprise that Islam, Christianity, and Judaism each regards the depletion of the Euphrates as a portent of the Day of Judgement.

Existential issue

That the river is depleting is not in doubt but the question remains: Is there political will to address such an existential issue at a time of such violence and fragmentation across the region?

The focus on violent actors dominates that of humanitarian suffering which in turn is a higher priority than cultural destruction, leaving environmental damage at the bottom of the pile.

Just because ISIL cannot behead the Euphrates should not mean that it should only be on the fringe of our attention considering the terrible scenarios facing 27 million people if depletion continues to the point of exhaustion.


Those in positions of leadership, particularly those in the West and in Turkey who are not engulfed in crisis, must make sure that there is both a vision and a plan for the river.

ISIL, in retreat from Tikrit, set fire to oil wells and people shouldn’t be surprised if a similar “scorched earth” policy is wrought on water infrastructure in the near term as the group is further diminished.

Plans need to be made for the “day after ISIL” in an area that desperately needs hope for a better tomorrow.

This could range from a technical river committee that recognises the interlinked nature of the challenge across borders, to efforts, suggested in the Chatham House paper, “to seek wider economic interdependence between states, which could involve the export of oil and gas supplies from Iraq in return for hydroelectric power from Turkey, and food trade between all three countries”.

Water from the Euphrates has been used as a weapon of war – there now need to be plans as to how it can become a channel of peace.

James Denselow is a writer on Middle East politics and security issues and a research associate at the Foreign Policy Centre.

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