Alarm over northern Iraq’s Mosul Dam continues to mount. This in-depth Globe and Mail update looks at how Saddam Hussein’s vanity project reached this point and what will happen if the dam does fail.
Mosul Dam, a Saddam Hussein vanity project, has required constant repair since it was constructed more than three decades ago. But as Patrick Martin reports, experts warn war and maintenance disruption have created an ‘unprecedented risk of catastrophic failure’.
Iraq, is facing an unprecedented threat from the giant Mosul Dam, upstream from its biggest cities, which U.S. experts warn is in danger of bursting and unleashing a catastrophic tsunami-like wave.
The country, under attack from Islamic State extremists and still reeling from a U.S. invasion and sectarian war, must now contend with a scenario that could be more deadly than all of these combined.
The U.S. embassy in Baghdad has warned that the 31/2-kilometre-long earthen dike holding back more than 11 billion cubic metres of the Tigris river “faces a serious and unprecedented risk of catastrophic failure.”
Should it blow, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says, it would create a wave some 25 metres high that would race down the middle of Iraq’s most populated and developed areas sweeping downstream anything in its path, including bodies, livestock, buildings, cars, unexploded ordnances and hazardous chemicals.
The embassy report warned it “would result in severe loss of life, mass population displacement and destruction of the majority of the infrastructure within the path of the projected flood wave.”
Studies by U.S., Iraqi and European engineers estimate that between 500,000 and 1.5 million people would likely be killed by such a flood and its aftermath. It would be “a humanitarian catastrophe of epic proportions,” Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said last month as she called on UN member states to press for “urgently needed” action.
Earlier this year, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is reported to have delivered a confidential note to Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi from U.S. President Barack Obama. In it, the U.S. leader is said to have pleaded with Mr. al-Abadi to take immediate action to protect the lives of the many Iraqis at risk.
The President’s personal intervention makes it clear Washington fears a breach in the dam may be imminent and would jeopardize efforts to stabilize the Abadi government and confound the war against the Islamic State.
The Mosul Dam was largely a vanity project ordered by Saddam Hussein in 1981, even as the Iran-Iraq war was raging. It was finished and put into use in 1986, providing electricity to more than two million people in Mosul and the surrounding area.
The problem, however, is that little thought was given to its location and it was constructed atop a bed of gypsum, a mineral that dissolves in water.
1984: Swiss consultants warn of seepage problems in the dam’s gypsum base – and the consequences should the dam burst
July, 1986: The dam begins operations; extensive seepage immediately requires constant large-scale grouting to hold the gypsum base together
August, 1990: Iraq invades Kuwait; the United Nations imposes economic sanctions, forcing Baghdad to halt construction of a second dam that would absorb overflow from the Mosul Dam and lessen the risk of flood damage
March, 2003: U.S.-led coalition invades Iraq; Saddam Hussein flees
2007: U.S. Army engineers report on the danger of collapse and the need for extraordinary structural measures to prevent a breach; grouting continues
August, 2014: Islamic State militants overrun northwestern Iraq, take control of the dam and loot the grouting equipment
September, 2014: A joint force of Iraqi Kurds and Arabs retakes the dam and guards it against Islamic State
2014 to 2016: Grouting becomes more sporadic without a sufficient, fully equipped crew
February, 2016: The U.S. embassy in Baghdad issues a warning of unprecedented risk of breach