The Environment Weapon: Water in Ancient Mesopotamia
By Melissa Brockley
The Fertile Crescent was not always so dry and barren. The agricultural revolution allowed the overuse and erosion of soil as more and more land was irrigated. The inefficient use of the land and the growing Mesopotamian population depleted the water supply. The agricultural revolution significantly contributed to the rise of conflict in order to secure water resources. Water is not only essential to survival in an agricultural society, but it is an effective tool in offensive and defensive war. The Assyrians and the Babylonians were of the first civilizations to perfect the use of water as a weapon. From early civilizations to present, states have engaged in conflict not just over resources, but have used natural resources against their enemies.
The first accounts of water being used as a weapon happened in the Middle East, and they are best discovered by looking toward legend. Peter Gleick gives an extensive chronology of moments in history when water played a significant role in conflict. He starts from the beginning of mythology:
One of the earliest examples of the use of water as a weapon is the ancient Sumerian myth- which parallels the Biblical account of Noah and the deluge- recounting the deeds of the diety Ea, who punished humanity’s sins by inflicting the Earth with a great flood. According to the Sumerians, the patriarch Utu speaks with Ea who warns him of the impending flood and orders him to build a large vessel filled with ‘all the seeds of life’.
The infamous stories of Noah, Adam and Eve, Gilgamesh, and Utu all resonate around the theme of humans angering the gods by exerting a free will. Following that, the gods inflict havoc on the sinners through a global deluge, but allow the heroes of the story to survive the flood and preserve terrestrial life.
In fact, the legends may very well be true. Robert Ballard and others have discovered evidence of ancient human settlements on the bottom of the Black Sea.  They purport that at one point, melting glacial waters caused sea level to rise, and therefore water to overflow the walls of the Straights of Dardanelles. The Mediterranean brackish water floated on top of the freshwater and helped to preserve the artifacts of the people it flooded out of the Black Sea shores. It is possible that the mythology of the great floods is actually the Earth coming out of an Ice Age, causing glaciers to melt and flood the land.
Truth or mythology, the great flood story reflects the historical importance of water in the Middle East. Not only did ancient society understand water’s value in the life cycle, but it understood water’s potential to bring agricultural prosperity and physical security. The people experienced the effects of flood and sought an explanation for such devastation. Finding answers in the will of the gods, they connected the great flood to gods’ punishment for original sin, which is an interpretation of free will in all three traditions. The gods were the first to introduce the water weapon to man, whose free will allows him to mimic the gods. Since the great flood, men have used water as a weapon of mass destruction by its contamination, diversion, dispossession, and by waterpower itself.
Water has been an element in conflict in other historical writings dating over 4000 years old. In Exodus, Moses led the Jews away from slavery and across the Sinai desert where the Egyptian army trapped them against the Red Sea. In the story, the Red Sea suddenly parted and led the Jews to freedom. Exodus was originally written in Hebrew Yam Sup, a language that can be interpreted in many ways. Although the Red Sea is the common translation, the author could have meant the Sea of Reeds, the Gulf of Suez, the Gulf of Aqaba, or even the Mediterranean Sea. Recent evidence makes it scientifically plausible that the Jews could have crossed the Red Sea around 1500 B.C., as in the story. Russian researchers Naum Volzinger and Alexei Androsov determined that a reef runs across the northern Red Sea. They have reason to believe that the reef was much closer to the surface in Moses’ time, and that the reef could have been exposed for small periods of time depending on weather patterns and tidal movements.
Middle Eastern water plays a major role in other Biblical stories. The book of Joshua recounts the battle of Jericho, in which divine power holds back the Jordan River to lead Joshua’s army to battle to take from the Caananites the land that god had promised them. God’s power is demonstrated in the Gospel Mark when Jesus walks on water to show his disciples that he is the son of god. Interestingly, his disciples were afraid and stuck at sea, but after Jesus’ appearance they were immediately on land again.
It seems that all of the Biblical accounts largely involving water also involve territorial issues: for example, Noah takes his family to a new, fresh land; Moses and Joshua both lead their people to a promised land; Jesus leads his sea-bound disciples to land. In Biblical accounts after Noah, water generally represents god’s sense of justice. Water tests human faith in all of the legends. True or not, the preservation of these accounts reveals the continued recognition of water’s faculties. In some of the legends, god uses water to punish sinners while in other legends water gives hope to the oppressed masses.
City-states often clashed over the diversion of water supplies to support irrigation systems between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. According to Sumerian legend, from 2500 to 2400 B.C., Mesopotamian city-states clashed over fertile soil, irrigation systems and water diversion. Lying upstream, Umma interrupted the Euphrates River water supply to Lagash. In response, the King of Lagash dug canals to divert water from the Tigris River at the boundary between Lagash and Umma. The King of Lagash and his successors systematically cut off the water supply to cities in Umma. These and other disputes finally led King Hammurabi of Babylon to create the 1790 B.C. Code of Hammurabi regarding water theft and negligence. The Code devoted hundreds of laws to irrigation systems.
Assyrian civilization developed a tradition of putting down civil unrest and defeating its enemies by withholding a vital survival-dependent resource (water) from an expanding population. In the 700s B.C., Assyrian king Sargon II destroyed the irrigation network of the Armenian Haldians in order to keep them at bay. Chronicles 32.3 describes Sennacherib’s attack on Jerusalem. In this instance Jerusalem is saved by digging a conduit from wells outside the city walls to cut off enemy water supplies. In 695 B.C., Sennacherib leveled Babylon in response to Assyrian rebellion and diverted an irrigation canal “so that water would wash over the ruins.” Six years later, in seeking retribution for his murdered son, Sennacherib destroyed Babylon’s water supply canals.
Assyrian kings following Sennacherib used water as a strategic weapon in international conflicts to come. For example, in the later half of the Century, King Assurbanipal seized water wells as a war strategy against Arabia. In addition, Syria seized water wells in its war against Arabia and it cut off water supplies when it besieged the city of Tyre in the 7th Century B.C. Assyria was not the only great power at this time to rely on the water weapon.
In the 600s B.C., King Nabopolassar of Babylon constructed extensive elaborate canal systems and tall city walls used for defense and to supply water to the city. In 612 B.C., coalition Egyptian, Median, and Nabopolassar-led Babylonian forces successfully used water as a means to attack and destroy Nineveh. The armies deliberately caused a flood by diverting the Khosr River. They then floated their siege engines on rafts and took over the city. Babylon’s most famous king used water to transform Babylon based on his father’s canal systems.
Nabopolassar’s son Nebuchadnezzar creatively used water in the context of conflict as both an offensive and defensive weapon. Offensively, “[i]n 596 B.C., Nebuchadnezzar breached the aqueduct that supplied the city of Tyre in order to end a long siege.” Water served to defeat his enemies and defend his home. Noting that the Euphrates River cut the city of Babylon in half, Nebuchadnezzar built a series of canals to create defensive moats around the huge walls of the city. The canals diverted the Euphrates to run between the three impenetrable inner and outer walls of the city. The river access points to the canal system were secured with iron grates.
According to Herodotus, who wrote 150 years after Nebuchadnezzar but did not mention his name, wrote that the Babylonians had access to fresh water through bronze gates strategically placed in the inner walls throughout the city. Credit for Babylon’s great surrounding walls goes to “two queens, Semiramis and Nitocris, with the former being the historic Sammurammat, wife of the Assyrian king Shamshi-Adad V (823-810 B.C.).” Herodtus continues “ it was Semiramis who was responsible for certain remarkable embankments in the plain outside the city, build to control the river which until then used to flood the whole countryside.” In the Universal History of Diodorus of Sicily, Diodorus states that “Semiramis, whose nature made her eager for great exploits and ambitious to surpass the fame of her predecessor on the throne, set her mind upon founding a city in Babylonia, and after securing the architects of all the world and making all the other necessary preparations, she gathered from her entire kingdom two million men to complete the work.” The images of Semiramis and Nitocris were reshaped in the period between fifth and first centuries B.C. This was due in part to the conquest of the Persian Empire by Alexander the Great and the re-shaping of history. As it turns out, Herodotus’ accounts were from anti-Persian sources that did not place emphasis on conquest as later descriptions focused on the rebuilding of Babylon as the result of the victorious Persian campaigns.
Not only was Nebuchadnezzar using water to protect his city, but he was protecting it from water being used as a weapon against Babylon. If a kingdom diverted the water supply to flood Babylon, as Sennacherib had done 100 years earlier, Babylon would be impenetrable because of its system of brick towered walls and canals. Ironically, it was the Euphrates River that enabled the Persians to defeat Babylon. In the middle of the night, during the Babylonian feast, Persian troops under Cyrus the Great diverted the river north of the city and marched in on the dry riverbed, right through the iron gates.
Modern Uses of the Water
Peter Gleick’s water conflict chronology takes a big leap after the fall of Babylon to Renaissance Italy. Gleick records that river diversions were planned to stop wars between Italian city states in the 1500s. Rumor has it: “In 1503, Leonardo da Vinci and Machiavelli planned to diver the Arno River away from Pisa during a conflict between Pisa and Florence.” One well known account of water being used as a weapon not mentioned is the Roman Empire. The Romans were known to have salted Carthaginian water wells after conquering them in the Punic Wars.
The water weapon has not been retired. In fact, it has been used in recent warfare. Chiang Kai-shek flooded parts of the Yellow River in order to destroy the invading Japanese army in 1938. The tactic was successful, however 10,000 to 1 million Chinese people were displaced from the flooding. The bombing of hydroelectric dams was common in WWII. Also, in Vietnam, American forces commonly bombed dykes which drowned or starved 2-3 million North Vietnamese people. In Kosovo, the Serbs contaminated water supplies and in Zambia, war destroyed a water pipeline into a city of 3 million people.
Current Water Weapon Use in the Middle East
is a deep-rooted problem in the Middle East, where the consequences of civilization
and the agricultural revolution originated. Increasing demand for water alongside
mounting scarcity threatens the daily lives of millions of people in the region.
Despite the need for drinking water, the likelihood of water being used as a
weapon is increasing as countries in the Middle East rely more on water delivery
systems that are connected to electricity systems. During the Iran-Iraq War
in the 1980s, Iran bombed a Kurdish hydro-electric plant in northern Iraq with
the intention of blacking out large portions of Iraq. During the 1991 Gulf War,
Iraqi forces destroyed desalination plants in Kuwait during retreat. Kuwaiti
and allied forces deliberately targeted Baghdad’s water and sanitation systems
too, among other civilian-oriented facilities. Ruthlessly after the war, Saddam
Hussein deprived the Marsh Arabs of water in reaction to a Shiite rebellion.
U.S. forces showed some restraint in using the water weapon, although their reasoning was not primarily to protect Iraqi citizens. Fearing that Iraq would use chemical or biological weapons against troops, allied forces decided not to destroy dams upstream Baghdad on the Euphrates River, which would have flooded and contaminated downstream water even for agricultural use.
The Middle East is an area where water resources are extremely tight and populations are continually expanding. Conflict has recently come up regarding water resources. After Syria built the al-Thawra Dam in 1968, the downstream water flow to Iraq was greatly diminished, causing widespread droughts. Iraq threatened to attack the dam; however Saudi Arabia’s mediation skirted any violence.
Ancient Sumerian city-states: Lagash, Umma, Babylon, Assyria Persian Empire under Cyrus to defeat Babylon
Source (diverting water) and sink
The Middle East has not always been a dry region. About 12,000 years ago the last ice age began to end and as the glaciers retreated, the soil dried out. The hunters and gatherers soon had to become farmers that over-worked the land, and for hundreds of years the soil eroded and the barren hillsides formed. “After a millennium or more, the farmers discovered that by digging ditches from the rivers out onto the remarkable flat plains of the land between the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers to bring water out to now deep soils they could bring water to where the soil had already gone.” The irrigation systems transformed the society by creating wealth, allowing the population to expand.
The ancient story of original sin parallels the birth of civilization in the Fertile Crescent. In the Biblical account in Genesis, Adam and Eve lived in the Garden of Eden, i.e. the Fertile Crescent, where they had only what they needed. When the humans ate from the Tree of Knowledge, god kicked them out of the Garden and punished humanity with a harsh environment. Likewise during the agricultural revolution, humans began to cultivate more than they needed. By eating from the Tree of Knowledge, Adam and Eve gained free will and were able to choose to manipulate their environment. In the Fertile Crescent, humans learned how to irrigate their land. Rather than getting kicked out of the Garden of Eden, they destroyed their own fertile environment. Ironically, it was their ignorance of the consequences of over-cultivation and not Knowledge that lost Eden to them.
The environmental problem of water scarcity and land transformation from plush to dry and salinated has continually worsened since the Ancient Sumerians. The most pressing concern for Middle Eastern nations now is safe drinking water. Projected population growth in the Middle East is so great that Israel and Jordan may require severe restriction of irrigated agriculture in order to allocate enough water for the population to drink. The Jordan River water quality is very good up until the Sea of Galilee and into the Dead Sea where the water is far too salinated to use. Water quality is a problem for those people that live in the Euphrates basin, where withdrawals and irrigation return flows contain high concentrations of agricultural chemicals and salts, which make the soil unusable.
The use of the water weapon itself has detrimental effects on the environment. Although sometimes this was the intention, the ancient Sumerian water weapon often flooded crop fields, creating over-irrigated, unusable land. When a river was diverted to run straight through a city, many people drowned. On the other hand, when water was withheld from the enemy, they died of dehydration. The war strategy of putting salt in enemy water wells had a multiplier effect on the drinking water system and salt seeped into the watershed as well, changing the ecological conditions and therefore endangering the plant and animal species that inhabited the region. Entire cities of people either died of dehydration or emigrated from their city-states.
More recently during the 1991 Gulf War, Iraq purposefully spilled oil into the Gulf that seeped into desalination plants in northern Saudi Arabia. Both sides of that war targeted desalination plants, water conveyance systems, and dams. These ruthless actions have inflicted intense suffering upon regional civilians to this day. The threat of biological and chemical drinking water contamination is a possible environmental disaster worldwide. Not only could millions of people die, but the contamination could spread to the watershed and therefore threaten major bodies of water, plants, and animals whose very presence is essential to the ecological balance.
dry –> used to be temperate
Today, the entire region depends upon the water of the Tigris and Euphrates, and that dependence shapes the political and economic life of the people living between the two rivers. The dependence fuels the legal disputes on water in the Mesopotamia. Iran, Syria, Turkey, and Iraq all share the traditional Islamic law view of water management. These countries allocate community water among communal water systems, which they have used since the Code of Hammurabi. In fact, shari’a from the term shari’a Islamic law originally meant “the path to the watering place.” Additionally, Israel treats water as a community resource as opposed to private property. Despite the community tradition, Middle Eastern countries fight about water more than any other resource.
Current water conflicts in the Middle East are mostly about water allocation and rights to water including the Jordan River and the three aquifers under the West Bank, Syrian dams on the Yarmuk River, and joint management and water protection of the Euphrates River between Turkey, Syria, and Iraq. Countries with extremely different economic, military, and political differences share a large amount of water and watersheds. The dependence on water in one country, and its reliance on protected water from other countries in the watershed make water an irresistible weapon in warfare today just as much as it was in 600 B.C.
Two-thirds of all Arabic speaking people in the region depend upon water that originates in non-Arabic-speaking areas; two-thirds of Israel’s freshwater comes from the occupied territories of the Jordan River basin; and one-quarter of the Arab people live in areas entirely dependent on nonrenewable groundwater or on expensive, desalinized seawater.
The Yarmuk River, a tributary of the Jordan River, constitutes a border between Syria and Jordan. It flows through Israel-occupied territories before meeting with the Jordan River. When dams are built upstream, they affect water quantity downstream, often times in another country and therefore out of inhabitants’ control. For example, in 1974, Iraq nearly bombed Syria when it built a dam that extremely reduced water levels in Iraq. Mediation staved off that war, however, and countries have come together to make treaties on water use.
Modern actions taken to prevent the use of water as a weapon include two international laws that came into effect during the Hague Convention. They prohibit the destruction or seizure of enemy property indispensable to the survival of the civilian population as well as attacks against damns and nuclear electricity-generating stations. The ICC is working on protection of water resources during war; however it does not have a lot of sway without US support. The Covenant of Economic and Cultural Rights recognized access to water as a human right in 2002. Signed by 145 countries, the General Comment on the right to water compels countries to ensure access to safe drinking water without discrimination. The International Law Commission adopted the law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses in the 1990s, which set forth principles like equitable utilization and the obligation not to harm other nations and to exchange hydrologic information.
Water, a natural resource that no human can live without, was used as a weapon defensively and offensively between ancient Mesopotamian city-states. Defensively, cities under siege stole water from wells outside the city through underground conduits. Without water, the invading armies had to retreat. Water was also used as a natural barrier; however it did not always keep armies away because they diverted rivers as a strategy and entered the impenetrable cities on their newly dried riverbeds. Diverting rivers was also used as a strategy to flood cities (and then attack them on rafts) or dehydrate them, both causing massive death and emigration. Additionally, offensive armies diverted rivers to flood irrigation systems outside of cities, thereby indirectly causing starvation and also negatively affecting the soil by eroding and saturating it with salt. One of the most direct offensive strategies was to take over water wells, which either drove people out of the cities or killed them.
Oil in the Gulf War
Nebuchadnezzar’s Defense of Babylon
Nile River Dispute
Jordan River Dispute
Litani River and Israel-Jordan
Aral Sea and Defense Issues
Cedars of Lebanon
Tigris-Euphrates River Dispute
The Yalu River and its security implications for China
The Lesothso Water Coup
The Cauvery Water Dispute
Water and Conflict in the Gaza Strip
Iran-Iraq War and Waterway Claims
[23 December 2004]