In a war, anything can be a weapon. In a particularly ruthless war, such as the conflict that has been raging in Syria for more than three years, those weapons are often turned against civilians, making any semblance of normal life impossible. Such is the case, experts say, with the way the nation’s water supply is being manipulated to inflict suffering on the population.
According to an article posted by Chatham House, a London-based independent policy institute, water infrastructure has been targeted by both sides in the conflict, leading to crippling disruptions in water supply over the last several months in cities such as Aleppo, Homs and Hama. The disabling of water treatment plants has led to a reported increase in waterborne diseases such as typhoid.
According to Chatham House researcher and fellow Nouar Shamout, the war has only worsened an already complicated and precarious water situation. ISIS, the Islamist rebel group that has seized control of many parts of Syria and northern Iraq, controls key parts of the water infrastructure in the regionally crucial Euphrates River system, including Al-Raqqa dam, which supplies one-fifth of Syria’s electricity and controls irrigation flows downstream.
The Euphrates River, which provides 65 per cent of the country’s water needs, is also experiencing a dangerous decrease in its flow rates. This is likely to be due to a combination of factors: decades of poor water management, current neglect of water infrastructure on the Euphrates, and the absence of any coordination between Syria and upstream Turkey regarding the river flow. As a result, in late May, the river dried up downstream of Al-Raqqa city, depriving many downstream towns of water. The water level of Al-Assad Lake — Syria’s largest reservoir, which provides irrigation for some 500 square miles of agricultural land and all of Aleppo’s drinking water — has dropped by six meters since ISIS took control in January. If the lake loses one more meter the water system will stop working. This will leave more than four million inhabitants without access to safe water. This could result in a humanitarian catastrophe that would overwhelm agencies on the ground.
The article devolves at that point, with analysis by Peter Gleick about how water is one of the causes of the current conflict. In fact, the conflict is caused by militant Islam and criminal warlords (and Islam, given its history and inherent problems and self contradiction, welcomes criminal warlords).
But up until that point the article is worth heeding in its warnings. For those of us who believe that the current system and infrastructure cannot and will not continue due to the ideological and moral rot at its core, there are a number of object lessons.
First of all, without logistics – and this includes ordnance, food, ammunition, water, clothing, hygiene products – an army cannot even survive, much less be effective and succeed. But this goes for men and their families too.
Consider the recent example of Toledo, Ohio:
Water in Toledo, Ohio, and surrounding areas remained officially undrinkable Sunday evening, more than 24 hours after a do-not-drink order went into place for 500,000 people.
Water at a Toledo treatment plant tested positive for a toxin on Saturday, leading the governor to declare a state of emergency in three counties, state officials told the Los Angeles Times.
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Ohio Gov. John Kasich declared a state of emergency for residents of Lucas, Wood and Fulton counties early Saturday after two water samples from a Toledo treatment plant tested positive for microcystin, a toxin possibly caused by an algae bloom in Lake Erie.
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Earlier Saturday, state officials warned residents in Toledo and surrounding areas not to drink, or even boil, the water tainted with microcystin, which can cause nausea and impair liver function.
This incident presumably has natural causes, and yet it has literally shut down Toledo’s water supply. Consider the damage that could be done with intentional and malicious actions by, say, terrorists bent on inflicting death and destruction.
The same could be said of terrorist actions against the nation’s electrical grid, as we’ve discussed before here, here and here. Without electricity, the nation’s financial system and manufacturing infrastructure comes to a halt. But the issue of water and other essential logistics is even more pernicious in that the lack of it means certain death, and very quickly.
In addition to death without it, it means certain violence and pandemonium among those who are deprived of it. Those who are left without the requirements for life will lose patience quickly with efforts to find them, and thievery and killing ensues.
If the lack of water and other requirements for life is pernicious because of the very nature of basic necessities, what man can do with that need is even more pernicious because nature isn’t evil. Man is.
Suppose that the state decides to approach the basic necessities of life as a means to ensure their own survival and power? You and your clan are then at the mercy of the authorities unless you have the means to provide those necessities yourself without state support (and it goes without saying, without state interference).
The Islamists have already learned to do that, and in fact used the electrical grid, drainage systems, sewage systems, and water supply as weapons of war during Operation Iraqi Freedom. The Syrian authorities and ISIS are not the first to do this. The Roman Empire long before had learned to use water as a means of control over the population.
… powerful individuals followed legislation on rural water use with considerable interest. Water was always central for crops and animals, and the access to and right to use rivers, torrents, lakes, ponds,springs and wells was of paramount importance. Thus there should always have been much attention paid to legislation dealing with irrigation and rural water rights and servitudes.
Again, one could substitute electricity, food and other necessities here, but the best example is the most extreme. Don’t believe for a second that the modern counterinsurgency theorists haven’t thought of basic needs as keys to populations, e.g., see Kilcullen’s own prose on this subject.
This era’s unprecedented urbanization is concentrated in the least developed areas of Asia, Latin America and Africa. The data shows that coastal cities are about to be swamped by a human tide that will force them to absorb—in less than 40 years—almost the entire increase in population absorbed by the whole planet, in all of recorded human history up to 1960. And virtually all this urbanization will happen in the world’s least developed areas, by definition the poorest equipped to handle it—a recipe for conflict, crises in health, education and governance, and food, energy and water scarcity.
Rapid urbanization creates economic, social and governance challenges while simultaneously straining city infrastructure, making the most vulnerable cities less able to meet these challenges. The implications for future conflict are profound, with more people fighting over scarcer resources in crowded, under-serviced and under-governed urban areas.
There is no specific recipe for success against terrorists, whether foreign or your own government, except to know and read the signs of the times, think about your options, and be prepared.
UPDATE #1: What It’s Like To Die Of Thirst
As this barbarism continues, I asked Jeffrey Berns, president-elect of the National Kidney Foundation and a nephrologist at the University of Pennsylvania, what these children may be going through.
“Thirst, as you probably know, is one of the most potent drives for behavior we have. It may be the most potent we have, more than even hunger,” he said.
“People are going to be miserable.”
The body is about 60 percent water, and under normal conditions, he said, an average person will lose about a quart of water each day by sweating and breathing and another one to three quarts by urinating, he said. In the heat and under more difficult physical conditions, that amount increases, he said.
If it’s not replaced over time and dehydration becomes severe, cells throughout the body will begin to shrink as water moves out of them and into the blood stream, part of the body’s efforts to keep the organs perfused in fluid.
“All the cells will shrink,” Berns said, “but the ones that count are the brain cells. They don’t operate normally when they’re’ shrinking.” Changes in mental status will follow, including confusion and ultimately coma, he said. As the brain becomes smaller, it takes up less room in the skull and blood vessels connecting it to the inside of the cranium can pull away and rupture.
This man, who died of dehydration, during a wilderness survival exercise, suffered delirium and hallucinations before he succumbed, according to an Associated Press investigation.
Victims’ kidneys may shut down first, Berns said, as they continue to lack access to both water and salt. The kidneys cleanse the blood of waste products which, under normal conditions, are excreted in urine. Without water, blood volume will decline and all the organs will start to fail, he said. Kidney failure will soon lead to disastrous consequences and ultimately death as blood volume continues to fall and waste products that should be eliminated from the body remain.
Also see WRSA.