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 Fallujah in January 2014, it also took control of the Fallujah 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 Fallujah 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) Two incidents put this threat in context, one in Iraq itself, one in China: On January 11, 1258, the Mongol army under Hulagu broke the dikes near Baghdad and drowned many of the 20,000 Abbasid troops defending the capital city of caliphs going back five centuries, softening up the city for conquest.
The 1938 breaching of Yellow River waterworks by the Chinese Nationalist forces fighting the Japanese invader has been 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.
July 22, 2014 update: The predominantly Christian town of Qaraqosh, Iraq, population 50,000, lying about 20 miles southeast of Mosul faces an ISIS-enforced drought, reports Jason Motlagh. Under the protection of Kurds, Qaraqosh offers a rare refuge for Christians fleeing ISIS. But ISIS has turned off the water tap.
Since taking Mosul on June 10, ISIL militants have squeezed Qaraqosh and nearby Christian villages by blocking the pipes that connect the communities with the Tigris river. Without a sufficient number of deep wells to fill the gap, the city must have water trucked in, at huge cost, from Kurdish-controlled areas just 15 miles away. Since ISIL took over key refineries in northern Iraq, the price of fuel has spiked across the region. The parched residents of Qaraqosh must pay about $10 every other day to fill up emergency water tanks, no small sum in this economically depressed part of Iraq.
Outside one of the town's 12 churches, people queue from 6 a.m. until midnight to get their daily rations from a well. Flatbed trucks are joined by children with pushcarts and riders on bicycles bearing empty jugs. "Our lives revolve around water," says Laith, 28, a school teacher who returned with his family a day earlier from a suburb of Erbil, the Kurdish regional capital, 45 miles away, to which thousands of threatened Christians have migrated. Though aid agencies have erected several water depots around town, supplies are limited, barely enough to sustain large families in the 100-degree-plus heat. Plans to dig new wells will take at least several months to fulfill.
Nor are Qaraqosh's problems limited to water: "electrical blackouts last most of the day. Merchants say business has been hamstrung further by a trade "embargo" that ISIL has placed on surrounding Muslim towns that used to trade with Qaraqosh."
July 27, 2014 update: ISIS released the second issue of its slick Dabiq internet magazine in many languages, including English. Ominously, the cover story shows a picture of something resembling Noah's ark on the waters and the headline "The Flood." Underneath comes the full title of the article in question, "It's Either the Islamic State or the Flood."
The cover of "Dabiq,' second issue.
In the article, by Abū 'Amr Al-Kinānī (note the very precise, scholarly transliteration), the Noah story is used to battle "the notion that the people can choose whether to follow the truth or to embark on falsehood." In other words, Noah's example shows the Muslims have no choice but to accept the ISIS interpretation of Islam.
Comment: (1) Legend has it that Noah's Ark was in today's Iraq. (2) Given the ISIS record of already having manipulated the Fallujah Dam a half year ago, and its proximity to the Mosul Dam now, the reference to a flood also has less metaphorical overtones as well.
Aug. 3, 2014 update: In what could be the beginning of a catastrophe of unthinkable proportions, Reuters reports that ISIS has seized control of Mosul Dam, Iraq's largest:
Islamic State fighters seized control of Iraq's biggest dam, an oilfield and three more towns on Sunday after inflicting their first major defeat on Kurdish forces since sweeping across much of northern Iraq in June. ... "The terrorist gangs of the Islamic State have taken control of Mosul Dam after the withdrawal of Kurdish forces without a fight," said Iraqi state television.
But a Kurdish official in Washington told Reuters the dam was still under the control of Kurdish "peshmerga" troops, although he said towns around the dam had fallen to Islamic State forces. "The situation has taken a turn for the worse over the weekend," said Karwan Zebari, an official with the Kurdistan Regional Government's office in Washington. He said peshmerga fighters were preparing for a "major offensive" Sunday night to take back control of towns near the dam. ...
Two people who live near Mosul Dam told Reuters Kurdish troops had loaded their vehicles with belongings including air conditioners and fled. Islamic State fighters attacked Zumar from three directions in pick-up trucks mounted with weapons, defeating Kurdish forces that had poured reinforcements into the town, witnesses said.
Assuming this to be true, ISIS has three main options to make trouble: reduce or cut off water intermittently; permit flooding; or not maintain the dam, leading to its collapse.
Aug. 4, 2014 update: Despite Reuters' certainty yesterday that ISIS had taken the Mosul Dam, subsequent reporting suggests that that is not the case. Here are Glen Carey and Ladane Nasseri for Bloomberg at 10:39 AM EDT today, "Iraq's Biggest Dam at Risk as Militants Battle for Control":
Fighting is raging near the Mosul dam, and it is a "no man's land," Sheikh Ahmed Al-Simmari, a resident of the nearby city of Rabia'ah, said in a phone interview. The Kurds have bolstered their forces around the area and are preparing a counteroffensive to retake the Rabia'ah border post with Syria and nearby towns, he said. ... The dam is functioning normally and is still under government control, Abdul-Jaleel Sahib, deputy director general of the state-run Commission for Dams, said in a phone interview. Kurdish Peshmerga are protecting the dam, Sahib said.
Aug. 5, 2014 update: UPI spoke to the man who runs the Mosul Dam and he says ISIS did not take the dam:
Abdul Khaliq al-Dabbagh, director of the Mosul Dam, refuted reports Monday that the dam had been seized by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Dabbagh instead hailed the Kurdish Peshmerga forces for successfully repelling the weekend assault. ISIS temporarily gained control of an employee housing complex at the dam, but were pushed back by the Peshmerga. A Kurdish Peshmerga colonel reportedly gave an erroneous account of the ISIS seizure to CNN on Sunday.
Comment: For the moment, this sounds authoritative and I conclude that ISIS, fortunately, has not taken the dam.
Aug. 7, 2014 update: (1) The Associated Press headline reads definitively that "Iraqi militants seize country's largest dam," where"Iraqi militants" is an inaccurate euphemism for ISIS militiamen. Details from the report by Sameer N. Yacoub and Vivian Salama:
After a week of attempts, the radical Islamist gunmen successfully stormed the Mosul Dam and forced Kurdish forces to withdraw from the area, residents living near the dam told The Associated Press. They spoke anonymously for safety concerns. ...
The Islamic State group posted a statement online Thursday, confirming that they had taken control of the dam and vowed to continue "the march in all directions," adding that it will not "give up the great Caliphate project." The group added that it has seized a total of 17 cities, towns and targets - including the dam - over the past five days. The statement could not be verified but it was posted on a site frequently used by the group. Halgurd Hekmat, a spokesman for the Peshmerga, told The Associated Press that clashes around the dam are ongoing and he does not know who is in control at this point in time.
Also, Reuters reports that two witnesses told it "by telephone that Islamic State fighters had hoisted the group's black flag over the dam."
In contrast, the Kurdish media site eKurd reports that Kurdish forces completely control the Mosul Dam after repelling ISIS: "Daash [ISIS] launched an attack on Mosul Dam but the Peshmerga repelled it," spokesman Halgurd Hekmat said. "They left at least one body and four destroyed humvees behind in their retreat." The Kurdish security sources say they killed the ISIS "minister of war," Tarkhan Batirhvili aka Abu Omar al-Shishani at the Mosul Dam.
Comment: Reuters and Associated Press say ISIS took the dam, Bloomberg and UPI said it did not. Whom to believe?
(2) ISIS need not sabotage the Mosul Dam to cause it to fail; it could "simply do nothing" Lee Ferran and Mazin Faiq point out for ABC News. That's because the dam requires
"extraordinary engineering measures" – namely constant grouting operations—to fill in the holes and "maintain the structural integrity and operating capability of the dam," according to a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) report from the same year. For 30 years—and through several periods of violent conflict—the Iraqi government has managed to keep the dam upright by continuously pumping in literally tons of grout like an industrial version of the little Dutch boy, as a geotechnical expert who worked on the dam put it.
Asked about the hypothetical of ISIS control of the dam,
a U.S. government official long-familiar with the dam said it's an unsettling idea made more so by a litany of unanswered questions. ISIS may not want the dam to fail, considering it controls territory that would be flooded and could leverage their control over the water and power source, but the U.S. official said it would still be up to the jihadist group to keep the grouting going.
"If ISIS does indeed have or gain control of the dam, will they listen to the dam engineers who have been working there for decades and who understand the need for constant grouting? ... And then this is the biggie: If they can't or don't want to grout, how long will the dam last?... And if it fails, will it be a catastrophic all-at-once failure or more of a slowly building uncontrolled release?" the official told ABC News. "The short answer is no one knows. This is all guesswork anyway."
The official said that he is not aware of official U.S. calculations about how long the dam would last without grouting but says he understands it to be "on the order of weeks, not months." The geotechnical expert agreed that "weeks" was a skeptical, but entirely possible estimation. "The potential for a disaster can't be ruled out and should be of great concern to all parties involved," the U.S. official said.
The U.S. State Department told ABC News late Wednesday the department is "monitoring the situation closely." Officials at the Pentagon did not immediately respond to questions about whether any contingency plans are in place in case ISIS does take over the dam.
Aug. 9, 2014 updates: (1) Reuters quotes witnesses saying that ISIS not only controls the Mosul Dam but has taken over the repair works, even bringing in its own engineers to conduct grouting.
An engineer at Mosul dam told Reuters that Islamic State fighters had brought in engineers to repair an emergency power line to the city, Iraq's biggest in the north, that had been cut off four days ago, causing power outages and water shortages. "They are gathering people to work at the dam," he said. A dam administrator said that militants were putting up the trademark Islamic State black flags and patrolling with flatbed trucks mounted with machine guns to protect the facility they seized from Kurdish forces earlier this week.
Comment: The specificity of this report does suggest that ISIS controls the dam, ending a week's uncertainty.
(2) ISIS has posted what it calls "ولاية نينوى/ الدولة الإسلامية - جولة في المناطق المحررة/سد الموصل/بعشيقة/وانة/تلكيف/الحمدانية"("Ninevah Province, The Islamic State: A Tour of the Liberated Provinces") that includes clips from Mosul Dam dated Aug. 1-6, 2014, and confirms ISIS control over it by showing the distinctive black ISIS flag in various contexts. Some screenshots from the video:
A sign saying "Tourist City at Mosul Dam" in Arabic and English; the bug at the top left says "Ninevah," the name of the province.
The road a top the dam. The Arabic at the bottom right says "Information Bureau of Ninevah Province, Shawwal 1435" [a date equaling July 28 to August 26, 2014]
The dam itself with the "Ninevah" bug in the top left.
Aug. 13, 2014 update: A BBC report provides several interesting facts:
Earlier this month, IS militants reportedly closed eight of the Fallujah dam's 10 lock gates that control the river flow, flooding land up the Euphrates river and reducing water levels in Iraq's southern provinces, through which the river flows. Many families were forced from their homes and troops were prevented from deploying, Iraqi security officials said. Reports say the militants have now re-opened five of the dam's gates to relieve some pressure, fearing their strategy might backfire if their stronghold of Fallujah flooded.
A week after taking over the Mosul dam, militants have reportedly been blackmailing frightened workers to either keep the facility going or lose their pay.
Analysts fear the Islamic State could now use the dam as leverage against the new Abadi government, by holding on to the territory around it in return for continued water and power supply.
Dec. 20, 2014 update: An Iraqi member of parliament from Diyala Province, Furat al-Timimi, told Al Sumaria News that a "humanitarian disaster" could soon occur due to ISIS having diverted the Roz River away from Bildoz district in his province.
ISIS, for the fourth consecutive day, diverted Al-Roz River, considered to be an essential water source to Bildoz, and supplying drinking water to 150,000 people as well as irrigating vast areas of land, ... thousands of people in Bildoz and other adjacent areas will be affected if water is not returned to its previous course into the river.
June 4, 2015 update: ISIS has, after capturing Ramadi, the capital of Iraq's Anbar province, reduced the water flow to government-held areas of that province by closing the locks on a dam on the Euphrates River near Ramadi. In addition to depriving its enemies of water, ISIS thereby threatens irrigation systems and water treatment plants and also improves its military position by making the riverbed dry and crossable anywhere.