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Iraq’s insurgency pipeline: water supply and ISIS’s recruitment in northwest Iraq

Sinjar, Iraq

In August 2014, two months after the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) captured Mosul, the network took control of Mosul Dam, the nation’s most important water resource. For days, Iraq stood still, fearing that the network would unleash mass floods that would kill or displace more than a million people, drowning the city that has existed for more than a thousand years. While ISIS never collapsed the dam, its three-year occupation of Nineveh, the governorate in which Mosul is located, led to the death and enslavement of thousands, decimating vast portions of the ancient region. Throughout ISIS’s reign, the majority of Nineveh opposed the group. However, a small portion decided to join its ranks. Why?

Ethnic grievances, ideology, and security were important. So was money.

There were many reasons that persuaded people in Nineveh to join ISIS, say locals. The fall of the Sunni-led Saddam regime fostered grievances among the Sunni community, and resentment was bolstered by political marginalisation and violence perpetrated by Shia military forces in the years that followed. Eventually, tensions rose so high that some Sunnis were convinced to take up arms with ISIS against the Shia community and other minorities.

Others joined for ideological reasons, believing that the imposition of Sharia law was the rightful interpretation of Islam. Security factors also played a role, with some hoping that the instability that came with the US invasion and subsequent counterinsurgencies would subside under ISIS’s regime. More joined out of fear, believing they or their loved ones would be punished for dissent. But while these dynamics are often attributed to the sudden growth in ISIS membership, others, namely, material and environmental factors, frequently get ignored. These reasons may have been crucial in determining who joined the network.

[ISIS] would give him a house, cheap food, cars and things like that. He would be treated better than general people. That’s why he joined

Student who survived the regime

Who was excluded from Iraq’s water economy?

Comparatively, Mosul’s economy before the ISIS takeover was in better shape than it had been in years. Locals say that government salaries were significantly higher than during the Saddam period, and the city was an acclaimed trading hub. But the beneficiaries of Mosul’s economic rise were generally confined within the city walls. Rural Nineveh remained severely disadvantaged, with the majority of the population reliant on farming but receiving insufficient electricity and water to do so effectively. 

Water management has been one of Iraq’s most heated political issues for years. Supply governance has historically been very weak, with the country, commonly known as the “Land of Two Rivers,” managing resources based on a philosophy of excess, not scarcity. Waste and mismanagement are prolific, with the implications of malpractice made exponentially worse by neighbouring countries’ development of dams to control and preserve water reserves for themselves.

Nineveh, located upstream in Northwest Iraq, was generally advantaged compared to the south in terms of water supply. However, even in this relatively comfortable water state, people in rural areas were not receiving sufficient supply. In 2010, 30% of rural Nineveh did not have access to clean water and many resorted to digging for groundwater to meet their needs, leading to salination issues. As farmers, these areas were also more reliant on water than their urban counterparts for irrigation and other similar purposes. The further away from Mosul Dam a community lived, the worse their water availability and usually their economic situation too.

Low-income, rural recruitment was important for the 2014 surge

While some people from Nineveh’s middle and upper classes joined ISIS’s ranks, the majority of recruits (according to locals) came from low income, farming backgrounds. The surging advance in 2014 was one made possible by recruitment from this demographic, which travelled to Mosul along with fighters from Anbar, Syria, and other parts of the world, to a city where the majority of the population opposed ISIS at the time.

Without sufficient water or alternatives to farming, ISIS provided an economic escape for struggling farmers. They provided salaries, land, housing, and a sense of purpose to communities who had been excluded from political and economic advances in the region.

Related video: Terrorist recruiting, water conflicts and climate change in Iraq

Terrorist recruiting, water conflicts and climate change in Iraq


These groups joined because “natural life there was so bad. They thought this would change their life,” states a Yazidi student who fled the Sinjar genocide in 2014.

Much more attune to local dynamics than international forces, the network was aware of these vulnerabilities within communities, exploiting poverty for their own ends. It is no coincidence that one of ISIS’s first administrative acts after gaining power was to redistribute irrigated dunams among the population or that many locals that escaped Mosul during the June 2014 takeover returned after the network restored the city’s water supply. Throughout its reign, the threat of water supply cuts was dangled over its territories to coerce locals into accepting its authority. While recruitment is a complex issue that cannot be attributed to water accessibility alone, ISIS’s consistent manipulation of environmental resources to legitimate, threaten, and punish means that these contextual factors cannot be ignored. 

Farming challenges sow the seeds for recruitment

Water politics alone do not explain ISIS’s overwhelmingly successful recruitment campaign in 2014 and individuals were persuaded to join for a variety of personal and political reasons. This does not diminish the fact that in Nineveh, a region vulnerable to armed group activities because of the security vacuum left by the Iraq war, the chaotic Syrian border, and existing socio-political dynamics, poverty heightened the risk of recruitment. While Iraq’s economic deprivation has many roots that have little to do with environmental drivers, in rural, agriculturally reliant regions, it is very difficult and may even make little sense to separate the two. 

Related reading:
Climate Risk Profile Iraq


Ten years on since the declaration of the so-called caliphate, these resources are rapidly shrinking. Iraq is in the midst of a water crisis, with the Tigris-Euphrates basin among the most vulnerable water sources on the planet. The gap is rapidly closing on Nineveh’s upstream advantage and Iran and Turkey are continuing to build dams that prevent equitable water distribution in the region. Meanwhile, the Iraqi government is in a state of denial about the emergency with environmental activists risking death for voicing criticisms.

While it is unlikely that ISIS will ever again reach its former peak, it has not yet given up hope of regaining power. Few of the contextual conditions that enabled the rise of ISIS have disappeared, but water and livelihood issues in particular are becoming much more serious. Iraq is one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change on the planet, and ISIS has destroyed much of the water infrastructure vital to manage supply.

Perpetrating a steady stream of sleeper cell attacks in Iraq and Syria that simmers below the radar of the international press, ISIS is not yet history. To stop its return and the emergence of equivalent groups, potential recruiting pools must be able to earn a living without them. 

Full research to be published in a Special Edition of The Defence Horizons Journal