The Most Dangerous Dam in the World

Credit: National Geographic

As the campaign in Mosul rages on, many are focused on a liberation of Iraq from the self-declared Islamic State. However, Daesh is not the only security issue Iraq faces. The most dangerous and imminent threat might just be around the corner from Mosul, and it is not a terror group nor sectarian tensions: Iraq is threatened by about 11 cubic kilometers of water from the Tigris river.

By Rouven Stubbe

That is the approximate amount of water stowed at the Mosul Dam, formerly known as Saddam Dam, upstream from the city of Mosul. The dam, constructed in the 1980s, is ranked the fourth largest in the Middle East and provides electricity to approximately 1.7 million people. There is just one problem: It is built on a karst foundation. In other words, it is built on gypsum to some extent. Karst is permeable and gypsum dissolves in water. This means that the foundation of the dam is weakening, and could lead to the collapse of the structure. To prevent this from happening, the Iraqi dam operators have since pumped over 100,000 tons of cement – an insane amount! – into the ground from the lower side of the dam. Nonetheless, water continues to leak through the ground, as the water constantly finds new ways when it is diverted from one hole. Since Daesh shortly took control of the dam in 2014, maintenance of the dam has been even more critical – many workers fled and much of the equipment was looted. On top of that, the factory supplying the cement is still controlled by Daesh, rendering effective continuation of the improvised procedure impossible.

The collapse of the dam would be disastrous, probably the single most lethal technological catastrophe in the history of mankind. According to estimates by the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, about 1.5 million people along the Tigris river (mainly in Mosul, Tikrit, Samara and Baghdad) are in imminent risk of death if there is no well-planned evacuation. As much as 6 million people might be affected by floodwaters. According to the latest study made by the European Commission, the flood wave would reach Mosul in less than two hours, making an evacuation of the densely-populated neighborhoods close to the Tigris almost impossible. The flood wave would attain heights of over 20 meters in about 3 hours (one additional hour after the arrival) in the most affected parts of Mosul. Tikrit would be hit after 21 hours, with maximum heights of 14.4 meters, Samarra after 26 hours with maximum heights of 16m and Baghdad after about 3 days with maximum heights of 7.9 meters, according to the EU study. Overall, 270,000 people could be hit by waves over 10 meters, 530,000 by waves over 5 meters and 2,150,000 by waves of over 2 meters. Additionally, floodwaters over 0.1m would affect over 6 million people, which is 16% of the Iraqi population, causing an extreme humanitarian disaster on top of the immediate death toll, if diseases spread through the water. Moreover, “at least two-thirds of Iraq’s wheat fields would be flooded,” according to The New Yorker. Baghdad’s International Airport would also be likely to flood, delaying humanitarian aid for weeks. It would be the end of Iraq as we know it. Streams of refugees, unimaginable even compared to today’s refugee movements in the region would spill out of the densely-populated Tigris valley area, affecting all parts of the country and the entire region, sparking even more conflict in the fight for food, shelter, medicine, etc.

Considering the dimensions of the possible effects, preventing a collapse of the Mosul Dam should be considered a top priority by the Iraqi government and literally the world. Any actor seriously committed to civilians in the region should direct all possible support (financial, know-how or other) to the issue. I would even argue that this damn Saddam Dam is more important than ISIS. Sure, ISIS kills thousands. Sure, it must be defeated (and a long-term solution involving the Sunni population must be found!). But this dam threatens the lives of millions, and surprisingly little attention is paid to it given the effects of its possible collapse.

Its construction on such a site is a scandal in itself, and the Swiss firm that allegedly advised the Saddam government to do so should be investigated. According to Japan Times, “Saddam’s deputy, Taha Yassin Ramadan, chose the site in an effort to bring jobs to Mosul, said Nadhir al-Ansari, a former adviser to the minister of irrigation who witnessed the initial stages of construction in 1980.” Problems related to its foundation were known from the beginning, since the grouting (pumping cement into the ground) started just after the dam was put into operation. “Within a year, leaks sprouted and the floor of the reservoir began to collapse, creating sinkholes. The Iraqi government was so concerned it began building the Badush Dam as a replacement. But construction halted in 1990 with the imposition of U.N. sanctions.” The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who started monitoring the dam after the 2003 invasion, warned that “In terms of internal erosion potential of the foundation, Mosul Dam is the most dangerous dam in the world.” In 2014, Daesh took the dam, but KRG Peshmerga retook it after about a week. Many dam workers had fled, Daesh had looted or destroyed equipment and the cement supply for grouting was, and still is, problematic. On top of that, infighting between the Kurdish Regional Government and the central Iraqi government over the dam and financing the maintenance aggravated the situation. A report from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from last January expects “almost certainly … an unprecedented level of untreated voids” concluding “Mosul Dam is at a significantly higher risk of failure than originally understood and is at a higher risk of failure today than it was a year ago”. The Japan Times states that “U.S. officials and engineers warn it could happen at any time.”

Everything indicates the situation is extremely critical. Last spring, some experts already expected the collapse of the dam with the snow melting in the mountains of Anatolia. Luckily, this did not occur, however, the situation next spring will be similarly critical. Iraq hired the Italian firm Trevi Group to undertake provisionary measures, and the group apparently started assessments and potentially working on the dam in September. Due to Baghdad’s budget problems, Trevi Group is at least partly paid by the World Bank. However, grouting cannot be a long-term solution. “It will increase the life expectancy of the dam but it won’t fix the problem,” Ali Asghar, an engineer at the electrical distribution center responsible for the dam’s hydroelectric plant is quoted by Japan Times. A second dam, replacing the Mosul Dam, would be such a long-term solution. One proposition is finishing the Badush Dam, whose construction was halted during the embargo in the 1990s. It lays downstream from the Mosul Dam, 18 km before Mosul. The biggest problem is financing this project, which would cost several billion dollars – currently unaffordable for the Iraqi government. Another solution could be the construction of a permanent seal of the current dam wall, involving “a mile-long concrete curtain dropped eight hundred feet into the earth” according to The New Yorker. However, this would cost 2 to 3 billion dollars as well, more than Baghdad can likely afford.

“It was all just politics, stupid politics that built this dam in such a quick and dangerous way,” said Ansari. “And now it’s just politics and corruption again, that’s why no one has reached a solution for Mosul Dam.”

It seems like the pressing issue is downplayed by Iraqi officials and no long-term solution will be implemented in the near future. All we can hope is that the Italians do their job well and the dam lasts a few more years until a future Iraqi government, possibly in cooperation with international partners, finds a more sustainable solution.

الله يرحم العراقيين

Sources and Further Reading:

‘Most dangerous dam’ facing collapse, threatens half million in Mosul: U.S. Army

A Bigger Problem Than ISIS?

US warns of Mosul dam collapse in northern Iraq

There’s No Rush to Save the World’s Most Dangerous Dam

Impact of flood by a possible failure of the Mosul dam

Statement on Mosul Dam Emergency Preparedness

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.