Cecilia Cassidy
Climate Change
Environmental Justice
Food & Water
Marcus King
Spring 2024

Climate Change and the Water Weapon: How Rising Temperatures are Expanding the Footprint of Conflict

By Marcus King, Ph.D., Professor of the Practice in Environment and International Affairs, The Earth Commons

Collage of a hand reaching to a blue screen against a grainy yellow background; text reads AN ELUSIVE ENEMY. Design by Cecilia Cassidy.

Water stress is a growing problem in many parts of the world. Approximately 2 billion people worldwide lack access to safe drinking water, and nearly half of the world’s population experiences severe water scarcity for at least one month each year. These numbers are expected to increase as the impacts of climate change, including drought and desertification, lower the quantity and quality of water supplies worldwide. The Middle East and regions of Africa such as North Africa and the Sahel are two areas where these impacts are pervasive. 

As water becomes scarcer, it becomes subject to manipulation for political ends by national governments and sub-state actors. For example, states with relatively greater water resources are able to wield power and exercise strategic advantage over their neighbors. This can look like one country unilaterally constructing water infrastructure — usually dams — that in turn restrict the flow of water to downstream countries.

This is the case with Ethiopia’s ongoing construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), which impounds water on the upper reaches of the Nile River. As a result, Egypt, which lies downstream and is dependent on the river for about 90% of its water, will lose a substantial portion of its supply. Beset by climate change-induced heatwaves and desertification, Egypt has become increasingly frustrated as talks over water allocation between the nations have stalled. Meanwhile, Ethiopia hit a huge milestone as the water reservoir behind the dam finally reached its capacity, increasing the country’s ability to generate electricity while also restricting water flow to Egypt.

Although international disputes, such as the one concerning the GERD, capture much of the world’s attention, water conditions within many states have also deteriorated. For those of us who study climate change, this is worrisome. 

In my research on environmental security and conflict, I noticed that areas under the influence of violent extremist organizations (VEOs), such as the so-called Islamic State, often experienced climate change-driven water stress. This correlation caused me to ask deeper questions about the nature of water’s relation to conflict in VEO-controlled areas across a wide spectrum of pre- and post-conflict situations.  

I found that within these nations especially, a water-stress and conflict cycle culminated in the weaponization of water. In this cycle, water stressors such as increasing temperatures, drought, desertification and poor water governance policies manifest in systemic effects which include  diminished agricultural yields and reduced food security. This, in turn, led to human responses such as migration within the country and across borders, involvement in extremist organizations and a rise in various forms of violence.  

My research, published in the book The Water Weapon, Water Stress and Violent Islamic Extremism in Africa and the Middle East, explores how VEOs have increased their ability to dominate their enemies both on and off the battlefield by manipulating water. My research takes a deep dive into conflict dynamics in three distinct geographies: Syria and Iraq, Nigeria and Somalia — all places that experienced droughts between 2012 and 2017. 

I found that the outcomes of the water and conflict cycle enabled VEOs to use water as a weapon in a variety of destabilizing ways. I define a weapon as a medium, action or offensive capability used to coerce, injure or kill. According to this definition, I categorized dozens of actions by VEOs into six types of water weaponization: strategic, tactical, coercive, unintentional, psychological and extortive or incentive.

The Categories of Water Weaponization 

Strategic WeaponizationTactical WeaponizationCoercive WeaponizationUnintentional WeaponizationInstrument of Psychological TerrorInstrument of Extortion or Incentivization
The use of water to destroy large or important areas, targets, populations or infrastructureThe use of water against targets of strictly military value within the battlespaceThe use of water provision to fund territorial administration or weapons acquisition with aspirations of achieving legitimacyAttempted water weaponization causes collateral damage to the environment or its human componentThe use of the threat of denial of access or purposeful contamination of the water supply to create fear among noncombatantsThe use of water provision to reward the behavior of subject populations and support legitimacy of the perpetrator

VEOs have used water as a weapon in ways that fall into each of the categories above. For example, in 2014, strategic water weaponization in Iraq was widely covered in the press and caught the attention of people around the globe. The Islamic State seized and briefly controlled the Mosul Dam on the Tigris River, about 140 kilometers upstream from the Iraqi capital city of Baghdad. This action theoretically provided the Islamic State with the ability to destroy the dam and unleash a torrent of water capable of flooding the “Green Zone” — or the location where allied forces led by the U.S. were based. As a result, the U.S. was drawn deeper into the conflict, initiating an airpower campaign in an attempt to dislodge the terrorists from their position.   

Sadly, there is ample evidence to suggest that the practice of water weaponization is spreading beyond the incidents I discovered in my research. Other violent extremists are weaponizing water in the Middle East and Africa, ranging from armed conflict in Burkina Faso to fighting in Yemen. The war in Ukraine has also featured numerous instances of water contamination, ecological destruction and targeting of water infrastructure. These events culminated in the destruction of the Kakhovka Dam, providing an advantage to Russia on the battlefield. 

It is clearly in the global interest to stop the proliferation of water weaponization for a host of legal, ethical and practical reasons. However, a rapidly changing climate is a critical factor in the international community’s response to the odious practice of water weaponization — and a key reason why time is not on our side.

A litany of higher temperatures, precipitation changes, extreme weather events and glacier depletions are steadily expanding the global footprint of water stress. As this happens, the potential locations where water can be weaponized by nations and VEOs grow in tandem.   

The problem is enormously complicated, but my research suggests that promoting climate adaptation in vulnerable countries is part of the answer. Better adaptation measures such as more efficient irrigation techniques and the use of drought-resistant seed varieties can address the underlying conditions that create the water and conflict cycle and enable water weaponization. 

Internationally, under a new principle called “Loss and Damage,” countries that are relatively heavy greenhouse gas emitters would be required to provide funds to enable climate change adaptation projects in countries with historically low emissions. Parties reached a historic agreement on the operationalization of the loss and damage fund and funding arrangements during the Conference of the Parties to the Framework Convention on Climate Change, COP 28, held in Dubai in December. Funding for Loss and Damage should be increased and its scope should be expanded to incorporate more projects that promote water accessibility and build resilience to water stress in vulnerable and war-torn countries. 

climate change
environmental justice
Georgetown faculty
international affairs
water conflict
water scarcity
water stress
water weapon