Friday,21 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1281, (4 - 10 February 2016)
Friday,21 September, 2018
Issue 1281, (4 - 10 February 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Row over the Mosul Dam

US alarm over the possible collapse of the Mosul Dam has been played down by Iraqi officials who insist it is not a big deal, writes Salah Nasrawi

Al-Ahram Weekly

Of all its multiple problems and daunting challenges, Iraq is probably now facing its most serious existential threat, a catastrophe that could cause more damage and deaths than all Iraq’s communal conflicts, political chaos and economic hardships put together.

The only problem is that the warning is coming from top American officials, and too many Iraqis, including in the government, are taking it with a pinch of salt.

Conspiracy theories abound, with a plot to partition Iraq, a secret plan to outmanoeuvre Islamist militants in Mosul, and corruption charges topping the list.

For months US officials have been warning of the possibility that Iraq’s Mosul Dam, the country’s largest water reservoir, is at risk of bursting, triggering prophesies of doom in a country already beset by a war against brutal terror groups and threats of secession by its Kurdish minority.

Last week, the top US general in Iraq, lieutenant-general Sean MacFarland, said the potential collapse of the Mosul Dam in northern Iraq could send a surge of water down the heavily populated Tigris River valley, sweeping away all before it.

“The likelihood of the dam collapsing is something we are trying to determine right now... All we know is when it goes, it’s going to go fast, and that’s bad,” MacFarland told reporters in Baghdad.

US state department officials have warned that up to 500,000 people could be killed and more than a million left homeless should Iraq’s Mosul Dam burst due to insufficient maintenance.

Even US President Barack Obama has intervened to highlight the need to make emergency repairs to avoid a tragedy. In a telephone call to Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi, Obama reportedly told the Iraqi leader that he was having nightmares caused by fears of the Mosul Dam collapsing.

According to American officials, rising water levels in April, the annual rainy season which is also characterised by melting snow, could lead to a breach of the dam. Another scenario suggests that the dam could burst in the summer or autumn when the water level is lower.

The 32-year-old dam is the Middle East’s fourth-largest in reservoir capacity. Inaugurated in 1984 during the rule of former president Saddam Hussein, the 3.6-km long dam was designed to reinvigorate agriculture and energy in vast areas of the Tigris River valley.

It was named the Saddam Dam before the name was changed to the Mosul Dam after the US-led invasion of the country in 2003.

With a capacity of about 11 billion cubic metres, the dam is a vital source of water and hydro-electric power for millions of Iraqis. It is a key part of Iraq’s national power grid, with four 200 megawatt (MW) turbines generating 320 MW of electricity a day.

Most of the power is to provide electricity to some two million residents of Mosul and other cities in Iraq’s Nineveh Province.

However, soon after it was built by an Italian and German consortium, Iraqi engineers discovered structural flaws in the Dam. It was built on water-soluble gypsum, which causes seepage.

The resulting erosion creates cavities beneath the dam’s foundations that must be plugged on a regular basis or the dam will fail. Over the years there has been a steady grouting and constant repairs schedule to maintain the structure and prevent the dam from crumbling.

However, the maintenance work was badly affected by the crippling UN sanctions imposed on Iraq following Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

A major problem was the difficulty of importing the microfine cement grout needed to be injected into the foundations with water under pressure. Western countries claimed that this kind of cement could be used to build or repair airstrips at military bases, listing it as a material susceptible to sanctions.

However, Iraqi technicians succeeded in producing a low-quality remedial material in shabby factories that was used for grouting the dam. As a result, its deterioration increased.

After the US-led invasion in 2003, the dam fell into disrepair as a result of neglect, violence and corruption. The US Occupation Authority said it spent some $27 million to help shore up the dam but made “little or no progress”.

The recent crisis began in 2014 after Islamic State (IS) militants briefly captured the dam before Kurdish Peshmergas forces took control of the dam with the surrounding territories that the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) now claims as part of the independent state it plans to establish in northern Iraq.

Iraqi officials, meanwhile, have been giving contradictory accounts of the problems faced by the dam and if there is any danger of collapse.

The Ministry of Water Resources says efforts are constantly being made to improve the basic grouting of the dam. It said its experts were working closely with the US Army Corps of Engineers to maintain the dam.

In a statement on Saturday, the ministry said it had not registered any indications of the dam’s collapse through the 96 seismic sensors it has installed in the dam area.

But other officials say Iraqi engineers cannot perform the needed maintenance. Among key hurdles, they suggest, are a lack of resources because of budget shortfalls due to the slump in oil prices and poor security in the area which makes it difficult to send workers and materials to the site of the dam.

Political bickering between the KRG and the central government in Baghdad has also played a part. The government has been protesting against the deployment of Turkish troops in the Province and demanding their withdrawal, while the KRG has sanctioned their presence.

It is unclear, however, what the government has in mind to deal with the dire situation at the dam. Critics accuse it of lacking transparency in dealing with the problem and being in a state of denial.

They also blame the government for having no contingency plans to deal with the kind of flooding that would follow the failure of the dam and no early warning system that would help millions of civilians to evacuate endangered areas.

Dam collapses can cause immense damage and loss of life. In 1975, the crumbling of the Ban Qiao Dam in China killed an estimated 171,000 people and made some 11 million homeless.

According to US media, if the dam bursts over half a million Iraqis could die from the flooding and subsequent water shortages. The flood created by the collapse would be about five metres high when it reaches Baghdad.

Reports about the possible failure of the dam have caused a stir in Iraq. Many politicians and officials blame the Americans for exaggerating the problem and triggering unnecessary alarm.

Among theories circulating in Baghdad is that the Americans are inflating the likelihood of the dam’s collapse in order to justify the much-talked-about political agenda of portioning Iraq.

According to this scenario, the KRG, the de facto power which is policing the dam, could be charged with overall responsibility for the facility. 

Some say it may be part of a plan to justify the offensive that US forces would join to take back Mosul from IS. A flood alarm could help to scare residents into fleeing the city before an attack.

Still, many Iraqi politicians believe that international business deals and possibly graft are involved.

There have been reports that the Italian company the Trevi Group is negotiating a deal to repair the dam and upgrade its 750 MW electricity generating plant at a cost of $2 billion. Yet, there has been no news of finalising a contract with Baghdad.

In December, the Italian government announced it was sending 450 troops to help Iraq guard the Mosul Dam. The troops would provide security for the Italian firm against IS militants located in Mosul around 25 km to the south of the facility.

Several Iraqi politicians have recently gone public about graft cases related to repair work at the dam site over recent years.

Bahaa Al-Aaraji, a Shia politician and former deputy prime minister, accused Minister of Higher Education Hussein Shahristani, in charge of the energy sector in the previous government, of ordering a halt to maintenance on the dam “because he wanted to give the contract to a company” of his choice.

Experts had suggested another company do the work, Al-Aaraji told Iraqi TV station Al-Sumeria on Saturday.

Viyan Khalil, a Kurdistan Democratic Party MP, has accused current minister of irrigation and water resources Muhsen Al-Shamari of trying to blackmail companies which have made offers to repair the dam.

While Iraq struggles to survive its other existential challenges, the Mosul Dam controversy seems to be another classic cloak-and-dagger episode in the country’s never-ending dramas.

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