War has always been about submission. In the 21st century, it becomes easier than ever.
In Syria, Bashar al-Asad, with an invaluable assist from Russia, has rolled up the various rebel groups in Aleppo. To many, this was a sign that the war was essentially over. There are pockets of resistance here and there, but the main base for rebel activity was Aleppo, and it is now destroyed, along with any hope.
But the rebels do have some key areas, and some that really matter. For example, they control the water that goes into Damascus.
Water from rebel-held Wadi Barada, which supplies Damascus, has been cut off since 22 December. The government has been using tankers to transport supplies to the city, but city authorities said the water had been contaminated with diesel. Most residents no longer have water coming from household taps.
The UN’s humanitarian adviser for Syria, Jan Egeland, said his team was being prevented from travelling to the Barada valley north of Damascus, making it impossible to tell if disruption to water supplies had been caused by Syrian government bombardment or rebel sabotage. Either way, he said, “to deprive water is, of course, a war crime since it is civilians who are affected”.
Obviously, I don’t know who is responsible for water being cut off, but this is one of those situations that becomes increasingly, then very quickly, intolerable. The Syrian government either has to focus on supplying enormous amounts of water on a daily basis or on quickly retaking Wadi Barada, which if their Aleppo strategy was any indication, means a relentless ground-salting bombing campaign. That might not make the situation any better.
So let’s say the rebels are doing this deliberately: it is, as Egeland said, a war crime. It should be treated as such, even for those of us who are “rooting” for the rebels. But the rebels know a central truth: a parched people are a desperate one, and one that might rebel themselves. Or they’ll cause chaos and violence, and people tear apart each other and the government. Thirst will drive you as mad as hunger. And that is what is driving modern war.
War has always been about making your enemy submit, whether that is through the annihilation of young men or through the destruction of civilian populations by violence or the slow attrition of starvation. Usually, it’s a combination. But in the 21st-century, where we’ve stretched our water supplies so thin, and so many people are depending on the meagerest flows from inhumanly long water chains, it becomes even easier.
This is also true in the Ukraine. After Russia annexed Crimea, the Ukranian government essentially shut off the water supply to the region. While we always imagine Crimea as Edenic, most of it (as Mansur Mirovalev at Al Jazeera reminds us) is barren steppe. The Soviets redirected water from the mainland to make it bloom into their vacation paradise. And now that water is being shut off. Russia is scrambling, but people are fleeing, the beauty is withering, and Putin’s dreams of reinvigorating the Crimea as a tourist hotspot are literally desiccating.
But it isn’t just about Putin or geopolitics. Hundreds of thousands of people have had their lives turn terrible and terrifying due to this. And millions in Damascus have the same. Putin and Asad are drinking just fine. It’s the regular people who are being returned to dust.
That’s how wars will be fought. Whomever has access to water has control. In a way, it has always been like this. Resources win wars. But we have more people than ever now, and water supplies are stretched thin. You don’t have endless aquifers. You have a world already teetering on a water crisis, and that crisis can be exploited, even by the “good guys”, to make any conflict a humanitarian nightmare.
(both links here pointed out by the invaluable folks at Circle of Blue.)