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Iraq: war diverts resources from preventing collapse of dam

Brian Champ

May 12, 2016

In the early 1980s, in the midst of the Iran-Iraq war, the "Saddam Dam" (now Mosul Dam) was built to consolidate the regime's control over the region around Mosul, an area with a high Sunni population and a key part of the former regime's power base. 

Engineering consultants at the time warned that the dam's location on water-soluble rocks (karst) was problematic; they advised "thorough" grouting of the cracks in the rock under the foundation of the dam which would safeguard against the erosion of the dam's foundation. To save time and money, however, a combination of "blanket" grouting 25 m around the base of the dam's foundation and a 150 m deep grout "curtain" under the dam's foundation was used.  

Sanctions and war

The dam was completed in 1984, the reservoir filled up in 1985 and in 1986 leaks were first detected. From that time until ISIS forces took control of the dam in August 2014, continuous grouting was performed to fill up the sinkholes that formed under and around the foundation. Approximately 95,000 tonnes of concrete and other materials have been pumped into these cracks over the last 30 years. Early on the danger posed by the dam's collapse prompted the regime to construct the Badush dam a little farther downstream as an insurance policy; it's construction was halted by the UN sanctions regime in the 1990s for lack of the required materials.

Although Iraqi government forces retook the Dam in September 2014, ISIS forces are still very close by; they also took much of grouting equipment with them when they left and the ability to perform the required maintenance is hampered by the proximity of the fighting. “We used to have 300 people working 24 hours in three shifts but very few of these workers have come back. There are perhaps 30 people there now,” said Nasrat Adamo, the dam's former chief engineer.   

The sluices that could be opened to release the water pressure are jammed, and the spring meltwaters have filled the reservoir to a very high level. US and Iraqi officials are now warning that the dam called the "most dangerous in the world" by the US Army Corps of Engineers in 2006, could face collapse at any moment, putting at risk the communities along the river. Readings from sensors left in the rock below the foundation in December of last year show that the gaps in the rock are forming faster than they can by filled. In addition, other sinkholes downstream from and to the east of the dam have had to be filled recently.

Ticking time bomb

If it did collapse, the city of Mosul would be devastated by the 20 m high wave that would hit it like a hammer.  The Iraqi government has told people to flee 6 km to either side of the river, which has been called "ridiculous" by another former engineer at the dam, Nadhir al-Ansari: “What are all these people, millions of people, supposed to do when they get 6km away? There is no support for them there. Nothing to help them live.”

“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.”

It would be difficult to have a good evacuation plan, since the river runs through territory contested in the current fighting, but something would be better than what's on offer. Instead, the Iraqi regime contracted the Italian engineering firm TREVI to maintain the dam for the next 18 months. They arrived in the middle of April, but labour and material supplies are likely to be hampered by the ongoing fighting in the area.  It remains to be seen if they can halt the deterioration before the dam collapses.  One thing is certain: if the foundation maintenance falls short, the dam will eventually collapse. According to Adamo, “Nobody knows when it will fail ... It could be a year from now. It could be tomorrow.” 

As if the people of Iraq have not suffered enough, a dam built by Saddam Hussein to solidify his regime in the 1980s could turn out to be the biggest weapon of mass destruction that he is responsible for. But the US led invasion and occupation of Iraq encouraged the sectarian divisions that now reign in the region. And the US military knew about the instability of the dam during the invasion in 2003. Why was nothing done in all the years of occupation to ensure that this ticking time bomb wouldn't go off?  Why wasn't the Badush dam completed in the intervening time to contain the damage in the event of a collapse? The billions spent bombing ISIS, which merely encourage it's spread, should instead go as reparations to the people of Iraq so they can repair the dam and rebuild their country after years of imperial sanctions and war.

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