Global Independent Analytics
Theodore Karasik
Theodore Karasik

Location: USA

Specialization: Geopolitics, Geoeconomics

The Day After A Mosul Dam Collapse

The Mosul Dam is the key hydro-project that provides electricity and irrigation for millions of Iraqis. The good news ends there.

The Background

Practically everyone is aware of the projected status of the 2.2 miles long Mosul Dam and the impending and unprecedented disaster in Iraq. Mosul Dam, classified by the US Army Corps of Engineers as ‘the most dangerous dam in the world,’ has sustained major structural flaws since its construction in the 1980s. When Mosul Dam collapses in the coming months or years, a wall of water will flood the heavily populated Tigris River valley through Tikrit and Samarra to Baghdad.

While the Iraqi government seems to have absolutely no plan for the coming disaster of biblical proportions, the United Nations and the United States are moving forward with the Day After. Recently, the United States and Iraq hosted a meeting of senior diplomats and U.N. officials to discuss the possible collapse of the Mosul hydroelectric dam, which U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power said would create a catastrophe of “epic proportions.” These meetings include experts from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, officials from the UN Development Program and Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, and other senior diplomats. According to interlocutors, the briefings are frightening to the point of shock.  It is clear that a Mosul Dam collapse will be one of the most challenging clean-up operations ever.

Although Iraq has signed a contract with Italy's Trevi Group worth 273 million euros (US$296 million) to reinforce and maintain the Mosul dam for 18 months many interlocutors claim that success in preventing an epic flood is slim to none: In other words, a Mosul Dam breach is inevitable. The Iraqi government has said it is taking precautions against the dam's collapse while seeking to play down the risk, which is extremely short-sighted and downright negligent.

Iraqi engineers involved in building the Mosul dam 30 years ago have warned that the risk of its imminent collapse and the consequent death toll could be even worse than reported. They pointed out that pressure on the dam’s compromised structure was building up rapidly as winter snows melted and more water flowed into the reservoir, bringing it up to its maximum capacity while the sluice gates normally used to relieve that pressure were jammed shut. The Iraqi engineers also said the failure to replace machinery or assemble a full workforce more than a year after Islamic State temporarily held the dam means that the chasms in the porous rock under the dam were getting bigger and more dangerous every day.

Let’s be clear:  The Mosul Dam is a disaster waiting to happen since its construction in 1984. Water began seeping through in 1986 when it became apparent that geological issues were worse than the consultants had predicted. From then on the Mosul Dam required constant maintenance to fill the caverns being hollowed out by water running through the soluble bedrock. A total of 95,000 tons of different types of grout were used over the dam’s lifetime. Grouting only prolongs the inevitable since a new, more modern dam. A second structure, the Badush Dam, was started 20km downstream, to prevent a catastrophe in the event of the Mosul dam’s failure. But work on Badush Dam was halted in the 1990s because of the pressure of sanctions, leaving it only 40 percent complete.

Floodwater Impact

In the event of a Mosul Dam breach, there is the potential in some places for a flood wave up to 14 meters (15 yards) high that could sweep up everything in its path, including people, cars, unexploded ordnance, waste and other hazardous material, further endangering massive population centers. Approximately 500,000 to 1.47 million Iraqis live in the flood path. Estimates suggest that the wall of water will arrive in Mosul in four hours and arrive in Baghdad in 45 hours with half a million people killed to one million. Specifically, in Iraq’s capital, 13 or so feet of water will cover the center of the city, and flooding would create a lake of more than 80 square miles. Two-thirds of Iraq’s high-yielding wheat farmland in the Tigris River basin would be severely damaged. Finally, the flood will severely damage or destroy large swaths of infrastructure and is expected to knock offline all power plants in its path, causing a sudden shock to the Iraq electricity grid that could shut down the entire Iraqi system.

The humanitarian and civilian impact of this event would be devastating. A breach of the dam would flood areas controlled by both the Iraqi Government and perhaps event ISIS. A collapse of the dam and the ensuing destruction would inhibit the ability of the Iraqi military to mount operations in the region. Civilians in areas controlled by ISIS might not have sufficient freedom of movement and leave the disabled especially vulnerable in the absence of a government-facilitated evacuation.

A Mosul Dam collapse would drastically impede the ability of both the Iraqi and international forces to base in the Iraqi capital and surrounding areas, currently fortified in anticipation of any ISIS offensive. Moreover, the fallout from potentially hundreds of thousands of people displaced—in addition to the millions already affected by the fighting and instability—would stretch humanitarian resources and capabilities on the ground in Iraq.

Will an Information Campaign Work?

The first step appears to be an educational program which is seemly falling on deaf ears. Educating flood zone populations of the risk of a breach and what to do in advance would improve the credibility and efficacy of evacuation warnings, helping Iraqis be better positioned to save themselves.

Evacuation warnings that occur in the narrow window between the detection of a breach and the impact of a flood wave would be subject to electrical blackouts, technical and bureaucratic delays, or rejections by communities that probably would not grasp the urgency and scope of the threat suggesting that prior awareness of risk could improve mobilization time in the event of a breach.

An education campaign could frame messages within an indigenous understanding of flood events. Flood path populations living in Iraq’s politicized media environment may find warnings of a tsunami like a wave difficult to believe and probably are unaware of the possibility, scale, and quickness of flooding that would result from a breach. However, many Iraqis have experienced periodic flooding of the Tigris River including floods late last fall that resulted in several deaths and thousands displaced and may find a resiliency campaign that includes localized, dam specific information more credible.

An education campaign could help local police prepare to direct an evacuation and create and stockpile emergency shelters, and allow Iraqis to familiarize themselves with escape routes. Information on the necessity of carrying basic supplies could help displaced Iraqis survive until they can obtain humanitarian assistance.  However, the likelihood of community-based efforts to prepare for the Mosul Dam break is not at the forefront of those downstream from the hydroelectric project.

Relief Efforts

The amount and spread of people in need along the 300-mile flood path almost certainly will overwhelm the capacity of any one aid actor to provide assistance, suggesting a coordinated response focusing on regional provision of aid by several best-placed actors could help meet widespread needs.

Immediate humanitarian needs post-flood almost certainly will include access to safe water, food, shelter, sanitation, medical, and livestock assistance. Safe water and sanitation facilities will be immediate priorities to stave off dehydration and waterborne diseases.

Infrastructure damage along the flood path almost certainly will deprive large groups inside and outside of the flood path of crucial services like electricity and safe water, compounding overall humanitarian needs.

Facilitating Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) returns to areas along the flood path will require clearing of bodies and debris, cleanup, and removal of hazardous materials and waste, the extensive rebuilding of affected infrastructure, reestablishing access to basic services and resources, and providing livelihood assistance. This aspect may take years which Iraq cannot afford.

Although water probably will recede quickly north of Samarra, Baghdad, the capital, will probably experience several weeks to months of standing water, which will delay recovery efforts. Aid actors almost certainly would need to utilize a variety of delivery methods and strong coordination practices to reach IDPs along the flood path.

Damage to ground infrastructure probably would render airlifts or air drops as the timeliest form of aid delivery post-flood, but delivery amounts would be limited by cargo weight restrictions and dependency on airspace and airfields, many of which are in areas perhaps under ISIS control or would also be damaged or inoperable because of flooding. Three inches of standing water can ground airplanes, rendering an airport unusable.

Sea shipments or cross-border convoys could provide larger amounts of aid, but major ports and border crossings are far from the affected area, increasing delivery time and reliance on ground infrastructure that may not be secure or operational. The flood wave could dislodge and redeposit IEDs, which would further hamper the aid response.

Prepositioning life-saving aid in regional hubs, although far from the flood path, probably would help counteract potential delays in procuring sufficient amounts of aid.

Immediate strong coordination efforts between humanitarian actors and bilateral donors almost certainly would improve the aid response by minimizing duplication of effort. This point is where regional aid organizations from Saudi Arabia and the UAE will come into play with augmentation from UN aid agencies. But the sectarian angle may likely play with on the ground efforts. Iran’s ability to help in this disaster is hampered by the Islamic Republic’s civil defense capabilities and their projection.  Tehran is unlikely to play a major role in the Day After of the Mosul Dam breach.

Conclusion

Clearly, the challenges not only to Iraq but the international community will require very serious thinking and coordination of this inevitable event.  Not only will the West be involved in this massive clean-up but also Russia, which has great expertise in disaster relief through EMERCOM (Emergency Situations Ministry), Moscow’s premier disaster relief agency.  That America, Europe, and Russia, to include key Arab states, will be part of the Mosul Dam Day After, cannot be denied.  To boot, all players will need to be prepared ahead of time for Islamic State and other non-state actors who will take advantage of the chaos to achieve local goals. We can already assume that Salafi Jihadists will use the flood as further evidence of their apocalyptic vision, and these extremists will use the death and destruction to boost their narratives that they are on the right side of history. Let’s make sure that governments, stakeholders, and influence shapers, and practitioners are ready for an epic disaster that is easy to prepare for.

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