Many dams across the world have constituted potential weapons of mass destruction if they were to suddenly give way as a result of an accident or attack. In 1981 when Iraq’s Saddam Hussein was seeking to afflict serious damage on his rival Iran he sought to determine whether hitting dams north of Tehran would flood the Iranian capital and cause immense destruction and suffering. To his disappointment however Iraqi assessments showed it wouldn’t.
In 1991 during the Gulf War the United States made clear that if Hussein gassed American soldiers they would launch a devastating retaliation. In 1996 General Colin Powel told PBS that taking out the dams on the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers was one extreme contingency scenario the Pentagon considered they could carry out under such circumstances, but admitted they didn’t thoroughly study the effects such an action would have. Doubtlessly however, Powell said, the destruction would have been enormous and “the loss of civilian life would have been terrible.”
Then there is the Imnam Dam in North Korea. It’s very existence constituted a threat in South Korea’s eyes given the fact that if it were destroyed, either intentionally or as a result of neglect, then large swaths of South Korea, including the capital city Seoul, would also be devastated. Consequently South Korea built another dam further down the same river and called it the Peace Dam. Should the Imnam Dam give way the devastation it could potentially cause the South Korea will be greatly diminished by the Peace Dam.
Then there’s Mosul Dam: A dam long described as faulty and a disaster waiting to happen given its karst foundation (the US Army Corps of Engineers described it in 2006 as “the most dangerous dam in the world”). It was briefly captured by Islamic State (ISIS) in the summer of 2014. However they were forced out by Kurdish Peshmerga forces backed by US airstrikes. It remains unstable and is once again making headlines given the potential that it might collapse and causing an enormous flashflood, up to 24 meters high, which could kill up to a million people trapped in ISIS-occupied Mosul and even further downstream in Tikrit and the capital Baghdad which, estimates say, will be flooded 45 hours after the collapse. Mosul on the other hand, ground zero, will be flooded in a mere four hours, evacuation measures obviously cannot be prepared there given the fact the city is still under ISIS domination.
Italian engineers are working to shore-up the dam but some are skeptical about its long-term durability. Nadhir Al-Ansari is one such person. He is a professor at Sweden’s Lulea University of Technology Department of Civil, Environment and Natural Resources and Engineering Mining and Geotechnical Engineering and an engineer from the days the dam was built. He has a long-term proposal for how to solve this issue.
He told Rudaw English that merely shoring up the dam isn’t an adequate enough long-term solution. “The solution,” he said, “is to continue to complete Badush Dam downstream Mosul Dam which is designed to hold the wave in case Mosul Dam fails. This is the permanent solution.”
Much like South Korea’s Peace Dam this would mitigate the major disastrous affects the potentially inevitable collapse of Mosul Dam would pose. Ansari went further and suggested “that once they build that [Badush] dam, they can build a smaller dam upstream Mosul Dam so that they can supply the Aljezera Irrigation project with water.”
By putting additional funds forward to building up Badush Dam Ansari believes that could offer an alternative to the unreliable and potentially lethal Mosul Dam. “Electricity can be temporarily supplied to Mosul through the construction of gas and electricity stations until Badush is completed,” Ansari explained. “Then this dam can supply Mosul and other cities with electricity and serve the same function.”
Baghdad has long been reluctant about spending the $10 billion needed to finish Badush. The war against ISIS and the fall in the world price of oil have also had a strain on its financial reserves. However, after years of downplaying the threat, it too is acknowledging the dangers of the dam collapsing. And without taking solid steps and a solid plan of action, like the one outlined by Ansari, this dam is an unthinkably devastating disaster waiting to happen.
Paul Iddon is a Rudaw reporter based in Erbil, Kurdistan Region.