World Ocean Forum
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World Ocean Forum

War and Water

by Peter Neill, Director, World Ocean Observatory

Our time is fraught with war and water. The headlines confirm that for what seems like forever there has been conflict in the Middle East where sectarian and religious rivalries, the pursuit of oil, and the geopolitical collision between economic aspirations and impassioned ideologies continue unabated. Many thousands have died — children, women, men as combatants or collateral damage, in an endless time and place of conflict.

I have been looking at the maps indicating where so quickly the so-called Islamic State (or IsIL) forces seem to have taken control, and wondering at their length and direction that extends from the northern border between Turkey and Syria southeasterly almost to the limits of Baghdad. The obvious explanation is that the extent of their success mimics the main highway than runs from Aleppo through Raqua, Qaim, Haditha, and Fallujah to the capital city. A larger segment of controlled territory is enclosed to the east by a similar route that connects Mosul south to Tikrit, Samarra, and Baghdad where the situation deteriorates into the ambiguity of warfare and shifting political ambitions.

But if you look closely at your atlas map of Syria and Iraq, you discover an underlying revelation: that those cities are placed and those highways run exactly along the course of several major rivers — the Euphrates, Tigris, and their tributaries — that originate in the mountains of eastern Turkey, bifurcate the empty desert, and descend to and past Baghdad where they empty at Basra into what ultimately becomes the Arabian Sea.

In the vast, dry, unpopulated expanse of the region, this war is being fought down a watershed.

My map is also marked by numerous three-dot symbols that are used by cartographers to designate significant historical cultural resources — locating places called Zenobia, Dura Europus, Nimrud, and Nineveh, names that speak to the earliest human settlements in what the history books call “the cradle of civilization.”

Those rivers nurtured our beginnings, before Islam and Christianity, before conquest from elsewhere by imperialists, then and now, following the trade routes to resources and connections beyond. There are other such symbols on my map — miniature drilling rigs signifying the major oil fields that fuel this war and all others. Cultural icons of our modern time.

The irony here is that after all the tumult and shouting, after all the air strikes and beheadings, all the assertions of conflicting systems of law, all the moral justifications, the only thing that matters is the water — to drink, to secure hygiene and health, to irrigate crops, and to sustain the communities regardless of sect or religious belief, to allow the descendants of those who lived in these places centuries before to continue and thrive.

The location of these cities and the caravan or highway routes between them are all testimony to the fact that for all time water has enabled the true security of the region. Take away the slogans and guns from these people, whoever they may be, let the people live there and the water will sustain them. Below Baghdad, along this same riverine watershed, there lies an enormous lake and swamp system into which all these waters flow, an area that has been home to so-called “Marsh Arabs” who had thrived there for a very long time in what were very fertile conditions. In the 1990s, as a strategic part of an earlier iteration of this present war, the area was drained by canals and dikes to isolate and destroy the residents by removing their shelter and livelihood. It became a desert like elsewhere, devoid of plant life and birds, of shelter and safety. Until recently. Through the efforts of a small activist group, the dikes were broken, the waters returned, the marshes filled, and life began there anew. It is a cautionary tale of how we might, through the free and unencumbered flow of water, build a home without terror and its collateral damage.

War and Water is an essay excerpted from “The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society” by Peter Neill, director of the World Ocean Observatory. Learn more at

This essay also appeared in the 2017 World Ocean Journal, volume 3: “Water Is Life”.



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