A Dam Shame
The largest dam in Iraq, the Mosul Dam, located 45 miles north of the city of Mosul, provides power to most of the central regions of the country, including Baghdad. Behind its walls lies a trillion gallons of water from the Tigris River. And ever since it was built in 1986, the dam has been disintegrating.
Once called “Saddam Dam,” its main architectural flaw is its foundation: it rests on top of a deposit of gypsum, a very soft mineral that dissolves in water. In order to prevent the earth from literally disappearing out from underneath the dam, engineers have to constantly fill the foundation's holes with gout. Machines are running 24 hours a day for this very purpose. If these machines fail, or a serious sinkhole develops, the dam could fall. Disaster for the millions of people who live beneath it.
In October 2007, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued a report explaining that the Mosul Dam is in imminent collapse of such a catastrophe, calling it “the most dangerous dam in the world.” If the dam broke, it is estimated that the city of Mosul would be drowned under 65 feet of water, Baghdad would be under about 15 feet, and nearly 500,000 people would die. Imagine Hurricane Katrina, but on an even larger scale. If the rescue and response to Katrina was horrendous, think of the consequences of such a disaster in a country with virtually no central governing authority and ridden by intense civil strife.
According to the Washington Post, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would like to build another dam downriver from the Mosul Dam to act as a barrier in case of collapse. The Iraqis, however, do not want to spend the estimated $10 billion it would take to construct it. It is not entirely an issue of money, however. Both the U.S. and Iraq are hesitant to discuss the dam because it would likely induce widespread panic. Without such a discussion however, the Iraqi engineers maintain that the dam poses no real threat.
The damage that the dam's collapse would do to the already fragile infrastructure of Iraq would be devastating. In the last year, despite much criticism, the U.S. Military's “troop surge” under the direction of General David Petraeus seems to have had a positive effect. Baghdad is generally safer, and sectarian violence seems to have dropped. It is of course difficult to tell if the country has truly turned a corner, but any such hope would be dashed if the Mosul Dam fell apart.
Whether a solution is possible or not is uncertain. Only a frank discussion and clear course of action between the United States and Iraq's engineers may save central Iraq. But in a country where the weak and ineffective central government struggles to grapple with sectarian violence and general lawlessness the initiative and planning needed to fix the Mosul Dam simply does not exist. That is why it is imperative that the U.S. government take charge in the effort in persuading the Iraqis to take control. No excuses allowed.