By Claire Harrison
In late January 2022, following a series of Houthi rebel strikes on its territory, the United Arab Emirates targeted several civilian infrastructure sites in Yemen that included a water facility. Nine days later, an investigation by The New York Times revealed that in March 2017, the United States targeted a dam in Syria that was on the “no strike list.” Both events circulated in the media on the same day, pointing to a historical trend of weaponizing water in war. As climate change further exacerbates water insecurity in much of the world, the disproportionate impacts of water scarcity on women and girls must be pushed further into the spotlight.
The January strike was not the first time the Saudi-led coalition, of which the UAE is a member, hit civilian targets, and specifically water sites in Yemen. Such attacks have outsized effects on a country that suffers from climate change-induced water scarcity, lack of clean water access, and rampant water-borne diseases. The January 11 strike destroyed a water reservoir in the Sahar district of Sa’da Governorate, which supplies water to over 130,000 people. The 2017 attack in Syria knocked out the Tabqa Dam on the Euphrates River north of Raqqa, controlled at the time by the Islamic State. It thus became a high value target, despite not being on any official U.S.-led coalition target list. The New York Times report revealed that the Tabqa Dam bombing took place after a top-secret U.S. Special Operations unit used a procedural shortcut reserved for emergencies to circumvent the chain of command and drop the bombs despite official warnings against the action. In spite of the horrific humanitarian implications, flooding tens of thousands of people out of an area and depriving many more of electrical power and water supply may well be a tempting strategy for state and non-state combatants alike. Indeed, U.S. Central Command told The New York Times the bombs “prevented ISIS from weaponizing” the dam against the people of Northeast Syria, demonstrating how the same logic around water could apply to both sides of a conflict.
Furthermore, grievances over water insecurity and lack of access were one of several factors culminating in the 2011 revolutions in Syria and Yemen. As freshwater resources evaporate and water scarcity becomes a truly existential threat for many populations, the monetary and identity value of water resources will skyrocket. This pattern of targeting water resources will accelerate, and water will become a driving factor for conflict. To be sure, many of the water scarcity challenges exacerbated by climate change are also attributable to weak governance and obstruction. However, both man-made and climate-driven accelerants of water scarcity create a negative feedback loop, exacerbating each other and driving up the value of water. As the earth heats up and resources evaporate, clean and safe water is often the first to disappear, leaving entire villages and sometimes countries arid. The price of water rises in parallel, and it is the lack of water that causes desperation and potential violence, not the cause of this scarcity.
When water becomes scarce, it is more likely to be monopolized and weaponized by groups seeking to capitalize upon desperation and fear as a means for legitimization and power. In many cases, the government’s inability to adequately meet its peoples’ needs further pushes people into jeopardy. This dynamic contributed to the entrenchment of groups like Al Shabab and Boko Haram in water-poor areas and their effective manipulation of water security as a recruitment tactic and funding mechanism. It is also what made civilian water infrastructure compelling targets in Syria and Yemen.
When a water crisis strikes, the entire population suffers, but climate change and water scarcity extract the highest price from women and girls. This is especially true for those who are already left behind or made invisible by the circumstances of conflict. At the opening session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women’s annual meeting on March 14, 2022, Undersecretary General Sima Bahous explained: “Women suffer most when local natural resources including food and water come under threat, and have fewer ways to adapt.” In many water-poor countries, women and people who identify as women are heads of households and devote a significantly higher proportion of their time to unpaid domestic activities. Most of these activities are water-intensive, such as laundry, cooking, and cleaning. This means women often have a greater role in day-to-day clean water management and provision and understand the stakes, while men are more likely to control the financing and distribution. Thus, when water becomes scarce, it is women who are left to deal with the practical implications of water insecurity.
Further, when conflict breaks out, women in these situations are impacted in ways citizens of water-rich countries often do not consider. In countries where weak government institutions translate to a lack of adequate and equitable water management, there is often one source of water shared between communities and at a great distance from the home. It is frequently women’s responsibility to make the journey to collect remote freshwater. When water decreases in availability, this trek becomes longer and consumes more energy and time, leaving women less able to address additional responsibilities and less able to pursue personal means of economic fulfillment. This burden is even greater for rural women who are already more likely to be further from water sources, distribution sites, or the reaches of government assistance. When conflict erupts, not only do these water sources themselves become sites of violent clashes, but the journey to obtain water becomes increasingly dangerous.
The disproportionate impact on women and girls is evident in places such as the Syrian city of Raqqa. As a result of the U.S.-led coalition and the Islamic State both targeting water resources around Raqqa, returnees to a liberated city suffered shortages of clean running water and sanitation facilities. For the women returnees, these problems led to a number of specific gynecological problems like urinary tract infections and cystitis. Children filled clinics in Raqqa city, plagued with respiratory illnesses, infections, and gastrointestinal distress, and one of the main causes was dirty water. In Yemen, water scarcity combined with ineffective governance in government-controlled areas and Houthi control in other regions increased stress on women and girls, who bore the brunt of responsibility for collecting water and rationing its use in the household. This in turn led to women increasingly dealing with health issues associated with expending the energy, time, and stress required to obtain water when food is scarce. Women were forced to stand for long periods of time in scorching heat and were exposed to sexual harassment and violence, depending on the time of day and length of time spent collecting water. COVID-19 has only made this crisis in Yemen worse.
But this intimate connection between women, water, and climate change also holds the potential keys to resolution. When women are the community arbiters of water distribution and are most intimately involved with the movement of water resources and consequences of water scarcity in day-to-day life, they also become sources of vital contextual knowledge necessary to a conflict-sensitive approach to conflict arbitration, mitigation, and prevention. As the frameworks for water peace developed over the last few decades become less relevant and effective, there is an opportunity for the international community to practice climate diplomacy and push for new conflict resolution frameworks inclusive of gender and resource scarcity.
The opinions expressed here are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of Women In International Security or its affiliates.
Claire Harrison is a 2021 WIIS Next Generation Scholar, a national security professional, and a research analyst. Her work focuses on climate security in the MENA region, institutional capacity building, and natural resources as a catalyst for violent conflict. She has previously served as a Research Associate in the Joint Advanced Warfighting Division at the Institute for Defense Analyses, as well as in various Middle East policy research roles at the U.S. Institute of Peace, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and the State Department. Harrison holds an MA in Strategic Studies and International Economics from The Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC, an ML in Chinese Politics and Foreign Policy from Tsinghua University in Beijing, and a BA in Middle East Studies and Political Science from Sciences Po Paris.
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