A Massacre in the Making: The Mosul Dam and the flooding of the Tigris

Fisherman on the Tigris river © Eng. Bilal Izaddin/Shutterstock.com

SUMMARY

While the Iraqi government is distracted by war, a dam in the north poses a potentially catastrophic threat to life and property.

INTRODUCTION

The Mosul Dam, one of Iraq’s major infrastructure facilities, is at imminent risk of structural failure. The U.S. Department of State believes this threat severe enough that it has warned its nationals to avoid the dam, and to withdraw from the Tigris flood plain. Despite ongoing attempts at stabilising the dam, the Iraqi government does not possess the capabilities or resources to fix the dam, which would involve its controlled demolition and reconstruction on firmer ground. The consequences of this could be disastrous, given the large numbers of settlements and the millions of people who live downstream of the north-south flowing Tigris.

Construction on the dam began in 1981, under then-dictator Saddam Hussein, and was completed in 1986. The dam sits 50km upstream to the north-east of the northern city of Mosul, one of Iraq’s major population centres and currently a stronghold of the militant group Islamic State.

The 3.2km dual-purpose dam, Iraq’s largest, is designed to provide hydropower generation of up to 250 megawatts, as well as to provide downstream irrigation. The dam was prompted by Turkey’s own construction of dam facilities further upstream, something which the Iraqi government feared would impact its own water sovereignty. The reservoir created by the dam, Lake Dahuk, contains over 11 billion cu m of water.

The barrage itself is structurally sound, as it was deliberately built to withstand aerial bombardments. However, its foundations are poor. The dam is built on gypsum, a soft, water-soluble rock inappropriate for dam construction. The threat this poses to the dam is somewhat mitigated by the extensive use of grouting, a construction technique whereby fluid concrete is injected into the gypsum foundation.

Since its construction, the dam has required continual repair and restoration work to prevent dam failure. Plans for a failsafe downstream dam, the Badush dam, were abandoned in 1991 due to estimated economic costs. In August 2014, Islamist insurgent group Islamic State took control of the dam for around ten days. This caused local specialist staff to flee, fearing for their lives. The dam was retaken by Iraqi security forces 10 days later, although vital equipment was damaged in the process. The incident escalated the immediate threat level posed by the dam, as crucial personnel involved in its maintenance have not returned to the project.

In December 2015, U.S. military engineers installed sensors at the dam’s base. These detected that fractures in the gypsum base layer were widening, indicating that its collapse was imminent. Italian engineering company Trevi Spa S.A. began an 18-month contract in April 2016 to reinforce and repair the dam, but the fundamental weaknesses of the bedrock mean that the best-case scenario is to delay, rather than prevent, the dam’s eventual collapse.

Although forecasts of the timing of this incident are impossible to predict with pinpoint accuracy, A2 assesses that a major breach of dam integrity is a strong possibility within the one-year outlook.

Iraqi cities at risk from the Mosul dam © Allan & Associates
Iraqi cities at risk from the Mosul dam © Allan & Associates

RISKS

Immediate risks

If the dam is breached, the human cost will be immediate and immense. Floodwaters, which could rise over 20m high in Mosul, would reach as far south as Baghdad, inundating the cities of Tikrit and Samarra along the way. Flood waters in the capital would reach up to 10m. A 2016 report by the Joint Research Centre, the scientific service of the European Commission, predicted the city of Mosul would flood within two hours, and the capital Baghdad within 72 hours. This coheres with a 2004 assessment by U.S.-based engineering company Black and Veatch.

Although the population of Mosul has been severely depleted as a result of Islamic State’s invasion and occupation of the city, it still numbers over 500,000 people. Tikrit’s population is over 100,000, and the city of Samarra over 300,000. Baghdad, meanwhile, is home to over 7 million. The swiftness with which the flood would reach major urban areas, and the minimal capacity of local or national authorities to create effective early-warning systems or initiate emergency evacuations, means that the death toll would likely reach over 1 million people, with even more injured and displaced.

At best, the Iraqi government would only have time to evacuate the Green Zone, the political and economic heart of Baghdad where the expatriate community, foreign businesses and the political elite reside. While Baghdad’s citizenry would have time to evacuate themselves, the Iraqi military and security forces are unlikely to be able to maintain order. Civilians fleeing the city will jam major urban thoroughfares, and there will likely be a complete breakdown in law and order, with the associated security risks attached to this. In the event that Iraqi security forces attempt to evacuate the Green Zone, A2 urges all resident staff to comply with their instructions immediately.

The havoc wreaked on the civilian population would be matched only by the structural damage that would affect the major urban population centres along the Tigris. Baghdad, Mosul, and Samarra are some of the most significant settlements in the entire country. Although the ongoing civil war and long-term insurgency means that settlements outside of the Baghdad Green Zone have few resident international businesses, major destruction would markedly decrease the Iraqi population’s capability to develop its own domestic economy and commercial infrastructure, should the security situation improve. This will be mitigated somewhat by the fact that Iraq’s primary oil reserves are in the north-east, close to the city of Kirkuk, and in the far south-east, near the country’s second city, Basra. Iraqi oil production is therefore reasonably secure in the event of dam breach.

Disease risk

Secondary risks arising from the flash flood would be a greatly increased risk of diseases, particularly water-borne viruses like cholera. A 2013 study by Baghdad’s University of Technology conducted a comprehensive chemical analysis of pollution levels in the Tigris. The report found that none of the studied water samples meet the World Health Organization’s minimum potable water standard. Any major flooding would further pollute the Tigris with sewage from Iraq’s underdeveloped sewage treatment system, rapidly escalating the amount of contamination in the water. The Tigris is a major source of drinking water for Iraqis, and in the event of a major humanitarian crisis it is likely displaced populations would have no choice but to drink from the river itself.

The case of Yemen, which is currently suffering from a major epidemic of cholera due to a complete breakdown in health infrastructure, is a worrying indicator of the medium-term risks that Iraq would face in the event of a major flood along the Tigris. Mass-infection from communicable diseases would be almost certain. This would likely overwhelm aid organisations currently operating in-country, and would be beyond the scope of the Iraqi government to handle effectively.

In the event of dam breach, any aid organisations working in affected areas should ensure they have rehydration kits on stand-by for infected personnel. Moreover, emergency medical evacuation plans should be in place for serious conditions. Given the likelihood that Iraqi medical infrastructure would be overwhelmed in the event of dam breach, evacuation plans should consider air evacuation to Turkey or one of the Gulf states. If air transport is impractical, rapid vehicular evacuation to Kuwait or Amman is advised.

Political risks

The combined impact of the damage done to the Iraqi civilian population, as well as the destruction wreaked on several key urban areas, would pose a severe challenge to the continued viability of the Iraqi state. The government, under Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, is already drained of both money and resources from fighting a full-scale war against Islamic State in the north-west. According to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs around 3.1 million individuals in-country are already designated internally displaced persons (IDP). Breach of the Mosul Dam could push millions more into IDP-status, something which would likely be beyond the capacity of the already strained Iraqi emergency and security services to handle. The almost certain inability of the state to effectively respond to this new crisis would undermine its legitimacy, and increase the risk of violent protests both within IDP camps and in major urban areas.

Indeed, many IDP camps are based along the Tigris itself. Such camps will likely have almost no forewarning of the flood event, and would be rendered inoperable. Iraq’s IDP population would likely therefore seek refuge in Iraqi Kurdistan, which has a number of IDP camps near the cities of Kirkuk, Erbil, Sulaymaniyah and Dahuk and which would not be affected directly by the dam’s failure.

This would, in turn, put huge additional pressure on the Iraqi Kurdistani regional government, which has a high degree of autonomy and hosts large numbers of international businesses. These companies, primarily relating to oil exploration and its support, would likely face a decline in their security environments, due to the movement of IDPs. In the event of a flood, site security managers of installations in rural locations, such as oil wells, should review their own security procedures as a priority.

Evacuation will likely occur amid the context of a complete breakdown of law and order

Although the Iraqi government will likely continue to function, a major flood causing over a million deaths will substantially weaken and delegitimise the current administration. The aftermath of such an incident will likely lead to major political instability, and would severely hamper the ability of the state to both fully deal with the Islamic State threat and to provide a functional government service. On a macro-political level, political opposition forces, such as the nationalist Sadr Movement of influential cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, could challenge the legitimacy of the government. Meanwhile, within his own NIA ruling coalition, Abadi could face a resurgent political challenge from former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki. Political instability would distract the government from reconstruction efforts, escalating the damage to property and loss of life that would follow in the aftermath of a dam breach.

Localised stakeholders, such as tribal leaders and militia commanders, will likely gain from the political vacuum.

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