[Opinion] Mosul Dam, in Iraq, once built to stand as a hallmark of Saddam Hussein’s regime, is in a position of ever-increasing precariousness, risking the lives of as many as one million Iraqi people with it.
Built during the regime of Saddam Hussein, to stand as a monument to a government’s engineering prestige, the Mosul Dam is now nothing but a ticking time bomb, risking the lives of more than one million people in the nearby city of Mosul.
Or is it?
There is no denying that the dam has its problems, and structurally it has been unsound since the moment it was erected. It was built upon insufficient land, very porous and soluble rock, and has needed constant attention and maintenance almost since its erection. A large team, working around the clock, has been required to fill the growing chasms that continuously form beneath the dam’s surface, threatening its structural integrity.
It is a fact that the sluice gates, which are designed to help regulate the water flow from the dam, are currently broken. One gate is jammed shut, and the other cannot be opened separately, as they are both needed to balance the flow of water, or risk causing a major flood downstream itself.
The Iraqi engineers who were involved in the building of the Mosul Dam, some 30 years ago, have warned that the risk of the imminent collapse is a real possibility, and the consequent death toll could be even worse than the 500,000 estimate the Iraqi government gave, and even the one million total that the US embassy in Baghdad provided without a clearly defined and successfully implemented evacuation plan; a plan that does not currently exist.
“If the dam fails, the water will arrive in Mosul in four hours. It will arrive in Baghdad in 45 hours. Some people say there could be half a million people killed, some say a million. I imagine it will be more in the absence of a good evacuation plan” Nadhir al-Ansari, an Iraqi engineer from when the dam was built, voiced about his concerns of the state of Mosul Dam.
However, there is no certainty to when the dam will fail, or if it ever will.
“Nobody knows when it will fail,” Nasrat Adamo, the dam’s former chief engineer, said, “It could be a year from now. It could be tomorrow.”
And that is just the issue with the whole situation. The comments by Adamo, who spent much of his professional career in Iraq attempting to shore up the fundamental flaws with the dam, summarise quite aptly the danger the Mosul Dam presents.
It could break tomorrow, and with it bring flooding that would kill as many as one million Iraqis in the surrounding area, but it could break a year from now. Nobody knows, and nobody will likely ever know until it happens, because the dam has so many fundamental flaws. Flaws that could cause a breach of the dam, but flaws that have existed almost since the dam’s inception.
As such, there stands an argument that the failure of the dam, while a real prospect, is being used as little more than a US propaganda tool, in the build-up to a combined assault by US and Iraqi forces on the city of Mosul.
The Islamic State’s brief occupation of the dam, and surrounding area, is responsible for the reduced team of staff working to grout the crumbling rock beneath the dam, reducing staff from a permanent, rotated workforce of 300, to just 30 engineers operating whenever possible. Equipment, grouting materials and cement supplies have also ground to virtual halt in that time, as the ongoing conflict in the country takes its toll.
There is no government support for the dam, nor any military assistance in defending the position, so the gear the workers used and required was quickly repossessed by the militants during their temporary occupation of the facility. Understandably, therefore, the engineers
Nevertheless, there is also some positives. On Wednesday, the Iraqi government announced it had signed a £210m contract with an Italian contractor to reinforce and maintain the Mosul dam for 18 months, following talks in New York between the Italian foreign minister, Paolo Gentiloni, and US and Iraqi officials.
Italy has said it plans to send 450 troops to protect the dam site, but it is unclear how long it will take to replace damaged machinery and reassemble the required workforce. Though, even if it takes some time restabilising the facility and beginning maintenance work levels of before once again, the deal with the Italian contractor is a sign of consideration of the dam’s risk and progress from the heavily-criticised Iraqi government.
So, while the Mosul Dam presents a real danger for the people of Mosul and safety precautions should be taken against the risk of its failure, the structure has been a real danger since Saddam Hussein’s regime first constructed it 30 years ago.
It could have failed then, it could fail tomorrow, and it could never fail. It’s a danger to the Iraqi people, but so too is the warzone that the country is devolving into, and the Iraqi government now has the prospect of Italian support, both militarily and in terms of maintenance, to help stabilise the dam. Consequently, it seems suspect that the US and Iraqi governments would argue the serious threat it posed, right as the two country’s prepare for a major assault on the city of Mosul.