- By Keith JohnsonKeith Johnson is Foreign Policy’s acting managing editor for news. He has been at FP since 2013, after spending 15 years covering terrorism, energy, airlines, politics, foreign affairs, and the economy for the Wall Street Journal. He has reported from Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia and, contrary to rumors, has absolutely no plans to resume his bullfighting career.
The United States is ringing alarm bells about the deadly consequences of a breach in the Mosul Dam in northern Iraq, warning publicly over the weekend that a collapse of the 30-year old dam could sow havoc and destruction over a large swath of central Iraq. The unusually public warning from U.S. diplomats suggests that Baghdad has not moved with sufficient urgency to address the dam’s structural problems, nor prepared Iraqis for a possible evacuation, despite years of increasingly alarmed assessments by American technicians.
“Mosul Dam faces a serious and unprecedented risk of catastrophic failure with little warning,” the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad said Sunday in a statement. The embassy also put out a fact sheet on the consequences of a dam collapse, painting an apocalyptic picture of an “inland tidal wave” wreaking devastation along hundreds of miles of flood path from northern Iraq to Baghdad itself. The embassy warned that a dam breach could threaten the lives of 500,000 to 1.5 million Iraqis, knock out the country’s electricity system, and severely disrupt Iraqi agriculture.
A breach “would result in severe loss of life, mass population displacement, and destruction of the majority of infrastructure within the path of the projected flood wave,” the U.S. fact sheet said. Floodwaters would maul big cities like Mosul, Tikrit, Samarra, and Baghdad.
U.S. officials have spent years warning their Iraqi counterparts of the danger of a collapse at Mosul Dam, considered by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as the “most dangerous dam in the world.” Former Army Gen. David Petraeus sounded the alarm about a possible collapse in 2007, for example, and the dam’s condition has apparently only deteriorated since then. A new assessment carried out by U.S. technicians and presented to the Iraqi parliament in late January found that the dam is in worse shape than thought, and that the risk of catastrophic failure is higher than a year ago.
Over the past year, the U.S. team monitoring the dam “has identified significant signs of distress and potential failure progression that were not identified when post-ISIL monitoring began,” the assessment concluded, referring to inspections made just after the Islamic State was dislodged from the facility. “All information gathered in the last year indicates Mosul Dam is at a significantly higher risk of failure than originally understood and is at a higher risk of failure today than it was a year ago,” the report said.
Yet Iraqi officials have been slow to react. In early February, Iraq’s water minister downplayed U.S. warnings and said there is only a “one-in-a-thousand” chance of a dam collapse. Engineers at the dam have also dismissed warnings of structural problems there, as have regional government officials. The office of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said in a statement Sunday that the dam’s collapse is “very unlikely,” but said that “the serious consequences if it did happen necessitate the alert.”
Built on a porous foundation, the dam has required around-the-clock injections of grout to keep it intact, a necessity even before it began operating. The ongoing maintenance schedule, though, has been disrupted by the Islamic State’s takeover in 2014 of the nearby city of Mosul, and for a brief period of time, the dam itself. U.S. technicians concluded that disruptions to grouting have caused an “unprecedented level of untreated voids in the foundation” of the dam due to ongoing geological erosion.
Concern about the dam’s integrity is mounting, in part because of the new technical assessment carried out this year by U.S. officials.
Earlier this year, it seemed as if Iraq had come up with a possible solution for the at-risk dam, signing a preliminary deal with Italian engineering firm Trevi Group to perform major repair work on the site. Italy’s foreign minister announced the deal, and said Italian troops would provide security for the site.
But a month later, Trevi still has not formally signed a contract for the estimated $300 million job, and it’s not clear that Italian forces will be allowed to operate near the dam, further complicating the repair. The U.S. statement underscored the need for Iraq to move quickly.
“We welcome the [Iraqi] prime minister’s commitment to undertake all necessary measures to rapidly finalize and implement a contract in order to address the structural integrity of Mosul Dam,” the statement said.
The continued campaign of the Islamic State is one reason U.S. officials seem to feel so much urgency about preparing Iraqis downstream from the dam. The terror group, also known as ISIS or ISIL, holds territory between Mosul and the capital, complicating the Iraqi government’s ability to deal with any sudden disaster.
“Much of the territory projected to be damaged by a dam breach is contested or ISIL-controlled, suggesting an authority-directed evacuation is unlikely, and that some evacuees may not have freedom of movement sufficient to escape,” the U.S. fact sheet warned.
Photo credit: SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty
NOTE: This article was updated after publication on Feb 29, 2016.