“A Bigger Problem Than Isis?” by Dexter Filkins. The New Yorker, 1/2/2017.
So how could any news for Iraq get any worse? Well, how about a huge dam that could burst, any day, any minute? Maybe before you finish reading this.
It is the Mosul Dam, a dam an American Army Corps of Engineering study called “the most dangerous dam in the world.”
As we learned in Junior High School, the politics and economy of Middle East is centered on the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers that flow down from the Syrian-Turkish border, through Iraq, and join south of Baghdad. The rich soil left behind by the floodwaters each spring created the Fertile Valley that nurtured the early Mesopotamian civilization. But, for hundreds of years, the variable flow of water wrecked havoc on the lives of the farmers settled on the banks.
In the 1950s, governments in the region began aggressive programs of dam construction. Dams give whoever controls them power over the flow of water downstream, rendering other countries vulnerable. In 1975, both Syria and Turkey were completing dams on the Euphrates that dried up the river flowing into Iraq, forcing tens of thousands of Iraqi farmers to abandon their land. Turkey was also surveying sites for another dam on the Tigris. Saddam Hussein was worried. He quickly built a huge dam on the Tigris north of Mosul and officially named it “Saddam Dam.” The reservoir behind it is two miles wide, eight miles wide, and holds 11 billion cubic meters of water.
But the rock surrounding the dam is interspersed with deposits of gypsum that is soluble in water. Hundreds of Iraqis work every day pumping cement into the holes opening up. If they did not, the dam would sink and break apart. Since the dam opened, in 1984, engineers have pumped close to a hundred thousand tons of grout—an average of ten tons a day—into the voids below.
If the dam broke, a colossal wave of Biblical proportions, as high as a hundred feet would rush down the Tigris, washing out Mosul and a string of cities all the way to Baghdad, killing hundreds of thousands of people with little warning. Large parts of Mosul would be submerged in less than three hours. Along the riverbanks, towns and cities containing the heart of Iraq’s population would be flooded; in four days, a wave as high as sixteen feet would crash into Baghdad, a city of six million people. “There will be no warning,” a consulting engineer said. “It’s a nuclear bomb with an unpredictable fuse.”
When the Americans invaded in 2003, they discovered a country shattered by sanctions. Power plants flickered, irrigation canals were clogged, bridges and roads were crumbling. Much of the infrastructure repair had been improvised. The U.S. government poured billions of dollars into rebuilding it, and in 2006 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began several assessments of the Mosul Dam. The first report was dire, predicting “mass civilian fatalities” if it failed.
The Iraqi government seems highly unlikely to carry out meaningful evacuations or large-scale relief efforts in the event of a breach. “The sheer scale of a catastrophic outburst of the dam would overwhelm local capacities to respond,” a U.N. report said. American officials have urged the Iraqis to place early-warning sirens along the Tigris. Thus far, two have been installed. “Run to higher ground!” Where’s that? As people flee, the sick, disabled, and elderly would likely be left behind. With the Baghdad airport flooded, meaningful relief from other countries might be days away. The U.N. predicted that most of the population affected by the flood would not receive any assistance for at least two weeks, and probably much longer. About four million Iraqis—an eighth of the country’s population—would be left homeless.
By the time the flood wave rolled past Baghdad and exhausted itself, as many as one and a half million people could be dead. But the aftermath would prove even more harrowing. “I am not really worried about the dead—because they’re dead,” an engineer said. “What worries me is everyone else. How do you feed six million people in Baghdad when it’s flooded? How do you give them electricity? Where do they go?”