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Weaponization of Water


Grades 6-8 | Historical Analysis | Source-Based

Source Lexile®: 1070L-1410L

Learning Standards





Prompt: Scarcity means a shortage of a necessary supply, and water scarcity is a life-threatening concern for the population of the Middle East. Research water scarcity and the use of water as a weapon of war in North Africa and Southwest Asia. First, read the two provided news articles (“Dawn of a Thirsty Century” and "Militants In Iraq Seek Control Of Precious Weapon: Dams, Waterways"). Then, view a chart titled “Water Conflict Chronology Timeline List.” After analyzing these sources, write an essay in which you make a claim about whether or not the control of natural resources can be more destructive than weapons. Include evidence from each source to support your claims and acknowledge opposing positions.





Source 1

Dawn of a Thirsty Century (Secondary Source)


The amount of water in the world is limited. The human race and the other species which share the planet cannot expect an infinite supply. 

"Global City Chicago." Global City Chicago Tribune. N.p.,n.d. Web. 16 June 2017. <>.



  1. Water covers about two-thirds of the Earth's surface, admittedly. But most is too salty for use. 
  2. Only 2.5% of the world's water is not salty, and two-thirds of that is locked up in the icecaps and glaciers.
  3. Of what is left, about 20% is in remote areas, and much of the rest arrives at the wrong time and place, as monsoons and floods.
  4. Humans have available less than 0.08% of all the Earth's water. Yet over the next two decades, our use is estimated to increase by about 40%.



Water shortages set to grow


  1. In 1999, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) reported that 200 scientists in 50 countries had identified water shortage as one of the two most worrying problems for the new millennium (the other was global warming).
  2. We use about 70% of the water we have in agriculture. But the World Water Council believes that by 2020 we shall need 17% more water than is available if we are to feed the world.
  3. So if we go on as we are, millions more will go to bed hungry and thirsty each night than do so already.
  4. Today, one person in five across the world has no access to safe drinking water, and one in two lacks safe sanitation.
  5. Today, and every day, more than 30,000 children die before reaching their fifth birthdays, killed either by hunger or by easily preventable diseases.
  6. And adequate safe water is key to good health and a proper diet. In China, for example, it takes 1,000 tons of water to produce one ton of wheat.



Inefficiency behind water crisis


  1. There are several reasons for the water crisis. One is the simple rise in population and the desire for better living standards.
  2. Another is the inefficiency of the way we use much of our water. Irrigation allows wastage, with the water trickling away or simply evaporating before it can do any good.
  3. And pollution is making more of the water that is available to us unfit for use. The Aral Sea in central Asia is one of the plainest examples of what pollution can do, to the land as well as the water.
  4. Increasingly, governments are seeking to solve their water problems by turning away from reliance on rainfall and surface water, and using subterranean supplies of groundwater instead.
  5. But that is like making constant withdrawals from a bank account without ever paying anything into it.



Looking for solutions


  1. And using up irreplaceable groundwater does not simply mean the depletion of a once-and-for-all resource.
  2. Rivers, wetlands, and lakes that depend on it can dry out. Saline seawater can flow in to replace the fresh water that has been pumped out.
  3. And the emptied underground aquifers can be compressed, causing surface subsidence--a problem familiar in Bangkok, Mexico City, and Venice.
  4. There are some ways to begin to tackle the problem. Irrigation systems which drip water directly onto plants are one, precision sprinklers another.
  5. There will be scope to plant less water-intensive crops, and perhaps desalination may play a part--though it is energy-hungry and leaves quantities of brine for disposal.
  6. Climate change will probably bring more rain to some regions and less to others, and its overall impact remains uncertain.
  7. But if we are to get through the water crisis, we should heed the UNEP report's reminder that we have only one interdependent planet to share.
  8. It said: "The environment remains largely outside the mainstream of everyday human consciousness, and is still considered an add-on to the fabric of life."





  • infinite: endless

  • remote: out of the way

  • sanitation: clean

  • subterranean: underground


Kirby, Alex. "Science/Nature | Dawn of a thirsty century." BBC News. BBC, 02 June 2000. Web. 16 June 2017.






Source 2

Militants in Iraq Seek Control of Precious Weapon: Dams, Waterways (Secondary Source)


In the searing heat of northern Iraq, among its dry, scrubby landscape, there's a surreal sight: a wide, shimmering blue lake, held back by the concrete and steel of a dam. It's on the Tigris River, near the city of Mosul.


Brig. Gen. Mohammad Ali Mughdeed, the commander of the soldiers guarding this dam, says even a small attack on the dam could have major repercussions: flooding, power cuts.




Right now, fighters from the Sunni militants now calling themselves the Islamic State are about six miles south, Mughdeed reckons — and they've already tried to move on the dam more than once.


Islamist extremists have pushed Iraq into crisis. They have taken towns and cities, roads and bridges, and Iraq's army can't seem to push them back.


Now the militants and the army are battling for control of the two great rivers that flow through Iraq: the Tigris and the Euphrates. The extremists are believed to have skilled water engineers among their number, and if they control Iraq's waterways, they could create serious disasters.





A Precious, Imperiled Dam


In a country as arid as Iraq, the rivers are precious and beloved. Mughdeed walks down to the lake to wash his face, while the soldiers he commands skim stones.


These are Peshmerga soldiers, from Iraq's semi-autonomous Kurdish area. They are posted now on a military base close by, which was abandoned by the national Iraqi army soldiers as Mosul fell to extremists nearly two months ago.


Up at that base, the brigadier general explains why the dam he guards is so important.


If the dam is damaged, he thinks it would flood not just Mosul and the plains around it, but also affect the cities downriver — Tikrit, Beiji, even maybe Baghdad.


He says if the militants capture the dam, they could threaten their enemies with flooding — for example, if the Iraqi army made gains in Mosul. And it's a hydroelectric dam — they could cut off the power. The commander believes the extremists know how to do it.


When the Iraqi army was disbanded in 2003, there were military and technical experts who were left jobless. Mughdeed thinks they're now fighting with the Islamic State.


There's other evidence of skilled water engineers among the militants. When the Islamic State took Mosul, they systematically cut off water supply to enemy areas. Then they issued a series of pictures of their men fixing water systems damaged in the fighting.



Floods, Pollution, And Shortages


Water has already been used as a weapon in this conflict. In the nearby city of Erbil, Colin MacInnes, UNICEF's deputy director in Iraq, points on a map to the Abu Ghraib area, where the Islamic State emptied a series of irrigation channels in May.


"This is just west of Baghdad," MacInnes says, "and this happened earlier on in the crisis where the communities of Ramadi and Fallujah become points of conflict."


By emptying those channels, the militants displaced 12,000 families, submerging hundreds of houses and at least four schools.


"It's an agricultural area and so all the agricultural lands were flooded and the crops were destroyed," MacInnes says. "The water sources themselves, within the community, became polluted, and so you no longer had clean water in the community."


In areas where water has been cut off, MacInnes says children have been badly affected — cases of diarrhea and dehydration are on the rise.


And as the militants push toward Baghdad, there's been fierce fighting around two dams that are crucial for the capital's water supply: at Haditha, west of Baghdad, and the Hamrin lake to the north. Damage to either dam could create similar problems in the capital – but on a much larger scale.


In Mosul, Brig. Gen. Mughdeed knows what's at stake.


He says none of his men sleep at night, because they know how much the Islamic State wants the dam.





  • hydroelectric: the power of moving water to generate electricity

  • Mosul: a major city in northern Iraq

  • Peshmerga soldiers: protectors of the waterways, fighting against Islamic militants

  • Sunni militants: soldiers for the Islamic terrorist State



Fordham, Alice. "Militants In Iraq Seek Control Of Precious Weapon: Dams, Waterways." NPR. NPR, 01 Aug. 2014. Web. 16 June 2017. <>.





Source 3

Water Conflict Chronology List (Secondary Source)



Parties Involved

Basis of Conflict




Military target

Violence in Yemen’s capital Sana’a leads to “acute water and power shortages, forcing residents to rely on power generators and buy water extracted from wells and sold on a thriving black market.” The violence arose during the Yemeni uprising that occurred during the Arab Spring protests across the Middle East. During the violence, government soldiers shelled neighborhoods and destroyed many rooftop water tanks.


Israel, Palestine

Development dispute; Military target

Israel’s military destroys nine water tanks in the Bedouin village of Amniyr in the South Hebron Hills, in the West Bank, Palestine. Later, soldiers destroy pumps and wells in the Jordan Valley villages of Al-Nasaryah, Al-Akrabanyah, and Beit Hassan.



Military tool

During the 2011 Libyan Civil War, forces loyal to dictator Muammar Gaddafi gain control of a water operations center and cut off water supply to the capital. The system controls Libya’s Great Manmade River—a system of pumps, pipes, and canals that brings water from distant aquifers to Tripoli and other cities. Half the country is left without running water, prompting the UN and neighboring countries to mobilize tanker ships to deliver water to coastal cities.




Up to 150 schoolgirls are reported sickened by poison in a school water supply in an intentional attack thought to be carried out by religious conservatives opposed to the education of women.



Development dispute

Hundreds of farmers in the town of Varzaneh, in Iran’s Esfahan province, clash with police during a protest against the government’s decision to divert water from the area to another province. Iranian media say farmers smash a pipeline carrying water from Zayandeh Rood river to neighboring Yazd province in an effort to prevent the water transfer. Dozens are reported injured and more arrested.



Military tool; Military target

Insurgents from ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) seize the Falluja Dam in Iraq and close the floodgates to cause upstream flooding and to cut downstream water supply. The objective is to flood the area around the city of Falluja to force government troops to retreat and lift a siege, while cutting water supplies and hydroelectricity generation for other parts of the country.



Military tool; Military target; Development dispute

The Yemeni Interior Ministry claims up to 4,000 people die annually from water-related violence including raids on wells and other fights over water access involving armed groups. A report from Yemen’s pro-government newspaper estimates that 70-80% of conflicts in rural areas are about water. The UNFAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN) estimates that about 20 million Yemenis do not have access to drinking water because of the ongoing civil war.



Military target

Control over power and water infrastructure and intentional attacks on that infrastructure are being used as weapons in the civil war in Syria. Officials estimate there has been a 50 percent reduction in access to safe water in the country since the war began.




  • Arab Spring: a series of anti-government uprisings affecting Arab countries of North Africa and the Middle East beginning in 2010

  • aquifers: an underground layer of water-bearing rock

  • insurgents: a person who revolts against civil authority or an established government


"Water Conflict Chronology List." Water Conflict Chronology Timeline List. Pacific Institute, 2009. Web. 16 June 2017. <>.










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