It's been apparent at least since the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 that the Mosul Dam, Iraq's largest, could spell devastation for Iraq due to a combination of faulty construction, governmental indifference, and an ongoing civil insurrrection. Were it to collapse, it would lead to the largest human-induced loss of life in history. (For more on this problem, see my coverage here and here.)
The conquests in 2014 by what used to be known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and now just as the Islamic State, have dramatically shown that other dams in Iraq can also pose problems, if not on so catastrophic a scale.
First, when ISIS seized Falluja in January 2014, it also took control of the Falluja Dam (or Barrage), which is on the Euphrates River, and proceeded to manipulate it for its purposes. Hamza Mustafa of Asharq Al-Awsat quoted a pro-government militia leader a few months later, after Baghdad government forces managed to recapture the barrage, explained ISIS' tactics: ISIS
realized after closing the dam gates—which resulted in a rise in water levels behind the dam—that if the closure continued, they will be besieged twice, once by the armed forces, and the second by rising water, and if they had to withdraw, they would drown, which in turn forced them to reopen the floodgates.
The militia leader also explained the motives behind these maneuvers:
ISIS has two objectives: on the one hand, they want to drown the areas surrounding Fallujah, but the sudden attack by the [government] army foiled that plan; on the other hand, they want to cut off water supply to the central and southern governorates in order to give their war a sectarian dimension.
The Falluja Dam (or Barrage).
The wall of water from the Fallujah Dam destroyed farmland 160 kilometers to the south and left millions in the majority-Shiite cities of Karbala, Najaf and Babil without water. Jeremy Bender explains:
Mohammad Al-Hayis, the head of the Sons of Iraq Council, a Sunni tribal movement opposed to al Qaeda, told Asharq Al-Awsat that ISIS' control of the Fallujah dam had "two objectives: on the one hand, they want to drown the areas surrounding Fallujah, but the sudden attack by the army foiled that plan; on the other hand, they want to cut off water supply to the central and southern governates in order to give their war a sectarian dimension." …
The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad estimated that ISIS' actions in Fallujah caused a water shortage for hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. ISIS has also previously rendered water sources undrinkable. On April 17, gunmen detonated IEDs on a oil pipeline causing a massive spill which contaminated the western half of Baghdad's water supply.
Second, ISIS approached the Haditha Dam, Iraq's second-largest, in late June, raising here too the possibility of catastrophic flooding. Reports the New York Times:
The ISIS militants advancing on the Euphrates River dam, about 120 miles northwest of Baghdad, were coming from the north, the northeast and the northwest. The fighters had already reached Burwana, on the eastern side of Haditha, and government forces were fighting to halt their advance, security officials said. … "This will lead to the flooding of the town and villages and will harm you also," the employee said he told the officers. According to the employee, who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak to the news media, the officer replied, "Yes, I know, it will be against us and our enemies."
Haditha Dam in 2006.
(1) Mesopotamia, one of the most ancient areas of human civilization, has always been defined by its two great rivers, the Euphrates and the Tigris; how ironic that these life-giving sources could potentially also be the vehicle of the country's doom.
(2) To put this threat in context, note the 1938 breaching of Yellow River waterworks by the Chinese Nationalist forces fighting the Japanese invader, called the "the largest act of environmental warfare in history." Here is the abstract of an article on the topic, "Drowned Earth: The Strategic Breaching of the Yellow River Dyke, 1938," Geoscience, November 1, 2009 pp. 287-297, by Diana Lary of the University of British Columbia:
Early in the war of resistance against Japan, the Chinese military command used a tragic version of scorched-earth tactics: they denied access to the Japanese imperial army to a vast stretch of China not by literally scorching it but by drowning it. In June 1938 the Chinese command turned the ultimate symbol of Chinese civilization, the Yellow River, into a weapon of war. The southern dyke of the River was breached at Huayuankou (Flower Garden Mouth) in Henan, 30 miles to the west of the Japanese vanguard. A cataclysmic flood swept through the breach, killing by the lowest estimate half a million people and turning millions of others into refugees.
The breach of the dyke was an attempt at strategic interdiction, to limit the mobility of the Japanese army and stop it moving further west. The waters of the River were to do what soldiers had not been able to do: to halt the Japanese advance. The breaching was a strategic move born of desperation. As the Japanese armies continued their relentless advance across China, sober strategic thinking in the Chinese command gave way to a mood close to panic, in which any conceivable action could be taken to stop the Japanese advance.
(3) The combatants in Iraq's growing civil war need to be compelled by their patrons (Turkey and Qatar, especially in the case of the Islamic State jihadis, Iran in the case of the Baghdad government) to agree on some basic terms of combat, such as not using waterworks as weapons of war. This is where outside powers (the West, Russia, China) can be of help. (July 1, 2014)
July 21, 2014 update: Nadia Massih looks at how "ISIS gains highlight 'aggressive' use of water as weapon of war" in Beirut's Daily Star. She notes that ISIS now controls some key waterworks on the Euphrates and Tigris rivers and is trying to win control over others – rivers, dams and desalination plants. These are crucial to its future because Iraq's 32 million people basically all depend on water flowing from those two rivers.
Control of water is seen as key to the viability of the fledgling caliphate declared by ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Without water, seasonal droughts cannot be managed, electricity cannot be generated, proper sanitation practices are near impossible and the local economy grinds to a virtual halt.
"When it comes to creating an Islamic state, it is not just about the control of geographic areas in Syria and Iraq. In order to form a viable state, one must control the state's most vital infrastructure, which in Iraq's case is water and oil," said Matthew Machowski, a research fellow at Queen Mary University.
Because ISIS holds key dams and surrounding areas in the north, where the two rivers enter Iraq, the Shiites who live in southern Iraq are at its mercy. Recalling the release of water in April from the Fallujah Dam,
fears abound that militants could employ a similar tactic at the Samarra barrage, overtaken recently in clashes around the contested holy city, the site of bloody sectarian violence in 2007. The barrage is designed to control the flow of water from the country's biggest lake, Tharthar, and generate hydroelectricity.
With these key dams under its belt, ISIS appears to have turned its focus to Haditha, at the heart of Iraq's water infrastructure and responsible for 30 percent of the country's electricity, particularly to Baghdad. Positioned on a main artery to the capital, its capture would represent "a huge symbolic and practical victory," said Sticklor. Government troops are actively defending Haditha, alarmed that an ISIS victory there would pave a virtually clear the road to the capital. … Haditha, along with Mosul dam, provides more than 75 percent of Iraq's electrical power.
Related Topics: Iraq
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