Saturday, January 16, 2016

One Dam Catastrophe for Iraq, Another Damn Catastrophe For Iraqis

When the Islamic State took control of large swathes of Northern Iraq in 2014, Mosul was the most significant blow. The fall of the city in that early June was one of the most humiliating losses suffered by the Iraqi Army during the entire conflict. The Iraqi soldiers, unwilling to fight, left some 2,300 military Humvees and stockpiles of weapons to be amassed by the extremist organization. The value of the armored vehicles alone is estimated at over 1 billion USD and has come to be described as "Iraq's worst nightmare", many of them now being used in suicide bombings.

Yet, the surrender of stockpiles of weapons and armored vehicles to the most loathed organization in the world isn't even the worst part of the fall of Mosul.

Mosul possesses the most important dam in all of Iraq. With a capacity of over 11 cubic kilometers of water, it once provided electricity to nearly 2 million Iraqis. The dam was built during the reign of Saddam Hussein when Iraq was at war with Iran.

The foundation of the dam was built on gypsum, a soft mineral that dissolves when it comes into contact with water. Although this made the construction of the dam completely unadvisable, the late dictator was assured that the dam could be kept in place with the appropriate maintenance. All that had to be done to reinforce the dam were regular injections of concrete to plug the formation of any leaks.

Maintenance had been carried out regularly over the years since the dam was built, long after the war with Iran had ended and even after the fall of Saddam Hussein, right until ISIS moved into Mosul in 2014. The militant group made threats that they would submerge Baghdad, however were soon pushed back by Kurdish forces during the three-day offensive.

While the dam has been in Kurdish hands ever since, the government has still been unable to carry out the maintenance and repairs that are necessary to keep the dam stable. The situation nearby remains so dangerous and fighting so tense that the government has been unable to send the much-needed workers or materials to mend the condition of the dam.

The situation is now critical and perhaps beyond repair. Many experts have warned that the dam will soon collapse entirely. This would be spell the most devastating humanitarian crisis for Iraq, possibly since the start of the US-led invasion in 2003.

Some estimate that the collapse of the dam could claim the lives of up to 500,000 Iraqis. People would not only die in the initial flooding throughout Iraq but the devastating water shortages that will follow, impacting the level of readily available water for both consumption and for farming. Thus, famine could also be around the corner for Iraq, requiring more assistance from the international community and making it even more incapable of dealing with the threat of the Islamic State.

If this catastrophe were to unravel, it would impact Europe and America just as much as it does Iraq. Thousands would flee the country and make the hazardous journey towards Europe in search of the stability that Iraq has failed to foster. It would further increase the risk of violent attacks, as the European Union would be overwhelmed by influx of refugees  and allow for radicals to seep in unnoticed among them. It would further destabilize Iraq and allow for even more gains by the Islamic State, as the country would be grappling with an unprecedented humanitarian crisis while at the same time fighting a war.

A 2006 study by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers named it as the "most dangerous dam in the world", and many of the estimates regarding civilian casualties are based on their findings. Among these were that Baghdad itself would be submerged by up to 15 feet of water, crippling the country's capital. It would further limit the presence of both the U.S. and U.N. whose compounds would similarly be submerged if this were to play out.

Iraq has attempted to ease the pressure on the dam by letting out water, however the rate at which it can dispel is far smaller than at which rains are building up in the reservoir. The situation will continue to deteriorate as February and March are on average the months Iraq experiences the highest level of raining. 

With so much evidence of an impending disaster that threatens several hundred thousand Iraqis, decision makers are left with few options. It may be days, weeks or months, however the dam has forgone proper maintenance for over a year and will soon give way. By that time, Iraqis have to be prepared and evacuated and the European Union ready to deal with the further proliferation of the refugee crisis.


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