The Tigris River is the cradle of civilization, the liquid heart of ancient Mesopotamia, which hasn’t been the same since the Babylonians sacked Nineveh in 612 BCE. The river also has the bad fortune of flowing through modern-day Iraq. One unforeseen consequence of its path through a war-torn country is the sad state of the infrastructure designed to keep it at bay. Case in point: The Mosul Dam is in imminent danger of collapsing. Death toll forecast: 500,000.
The Mosul Dam, formerly and unsurprisingly known as Saddam Dam, is the country’s largest hydroelectric dam, providing power to the 1.7 million citizens of Mosul. It is 371 feet tall and 2.1 miles long. Its reservoir is called Lake Dahuk, and it holds 11 billion cubic meters of water.
Unlike the Three Gorges Dam or Hoover Dam, however, the Mosul Dam is anything but a marvel of modern engineering. It is built on a foundation of soluble gypsum, which dissolves in water. Such karst foundations, as they are known, are legendary for forming caves and sinkholes.
The dam was ordered by Saddam Hussein and construction began in 1981 during the Iran-Iraq War. Time was of the essence, so the German-Italian company hired to build the structure was instructed to skip the step that involved shoring up the seeping, porous rock with a sturdy foundation of grout. The dam was completed and the on switch was thrown on July 7, 1986. Repairs started approximately two minutes later. Continuous grouting with a slurry of cement, a task performed around the clock by twenty-four machines and dozens of people, has been central to the dam’s operation since the beginning. This has done nothing, however, to prevent six sinkholes from forming in the immediate vicinity and the springing of several leaks.
When U.S. forces secured the country in 2003, units were dutifully dispatched to the dam to prevent insurgents from carrying out their plan to blow it up. The U.S. soldiers talked the insurgents out of destroying the dam and brought its own engineers over to assume repair duties. They did their best, but there’s no fooling Mother Nature. A 2006 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers report stated that “in terms of internal erosion potential of the foundation, Mosul Dam is the most dangerous dam in the world.” Furthermore, a collapse of the dam would flood both Mosul and Baghdad, possibly killing up to 500,000 people. That’s twice as many that died in the Indian Ocean Tsunami of 2004. The following year—2007—another U.S. report stated that the dam’s foundation could give way at any moment.
All was quiet until the summer of 2014, when ISIS fought their way into the region and briefly took control of the dam from Kurdish forces. Fortunately, within two weeks the Kurds and the Iraqis, aided by U.S. airstrikes, wrested control of the dam from ISIS. However, few of the 600 Kurdish and Iraqi workers returned, and the steady supply of cement needed to repair the holes was disrupted due to the factory being in ISIS-controlled territory.
Repairs resumed, but with fewer people and a lack of materials. Also, the brief repair hiatus may have weakened the dam considerably. Now officials fear the spring rains and melting winter snow will tax the faulty dam even further. On February 29, the U.S. Embassy in Iraq issued a security message to U.S. citizens in the area titled “Planning for Possible Collapse of the Mosul Dam.” The memo urges people to prepare their own contingency plan and update their documents so they can leave the country quickly if necessary. Meanwhile, according to one Iraqi official quoted by PRI, “The media tends to exaggerate . . . we assure people everything is fine.” Translation: The Iraqi government has not bothered to tell people the dam is in danger of collapse and what to do in the event of an emergency.
That means that few people in Mosul understand that they would have roughly four hours to seek higher ground at least 3.5 miles away from the banks of the river if the dam collapses. Other cities along the path, including Tikrit (population 160,000) and Samarra (population 350,000) would have a bit longer, but no concerted public effort has been made to warn people. People in Baghdad (population 9,000,000) would have a comfortable 24 to 72 hours to get out of the way, and flooding there would be much less severe.
Apart from the actual flood itself and its immediate loss of life, can you image the longer term ramifications of the dam collapse? The country’s agriculture would be nearly obliterated, the power grid would be wiped out, and other infrastructure debilitated. Add to that millions more displaced people on top of the millions of displaced people next door in Syria. The humanitarian crisis would be epic. ISIS still holds much of the territory around the dam, which would further destabilize the country.
The very slim silver lining in all of this is that many people who can influence the situation are aware of it. In early March, Iraqi officials signed a contract with an Italian contractor to reinforce the dam over a period of 18 months. Italy’s prime minister is sending along 850 troops to guard the contractors and the dam during the repair process. In the long run, however, the only sure-fire solution is to build a new dam. In fact, work began on the Badush Dam, about 10 miles downstream, to replace Mosul Dam in the 1988, but the project was abandoned half-finished in 1991 due to sanctions against Iraq.
In a world of increasing natural disasters, let’s hope that this hybrid man-made/natural disaster can be prevented. The people of Iraq have suffered enough.