Khalid Mohammed / AP

Doomsday dam could bring Iraqis together

Dangerous Mosul Dam provides incentive for cooperation between Iraqi groups that could help defeat Islamic State

Water stole the show from oil in Iraq last week, as Kurdish peshmerga soldiers and forces loyal to the government in Baghdad routed Islamic State (IS) fighters from Mosul and a nearby strategic dam – the shoddy construction of which may in some ways be even more dangerous than IS, experts said on Wednesday.

Since it was built 30 years ago, the Mosul Dam on the Tigris River has supplied water and electricity to Iraqis living in major population centers to the south. But it requires constant and intensive maintenance to continue holding back billions of gallons of water. Many fear that if it is neglected amid the current fighting it could rupture and flood villages, towns and Baghdad itself, potentially drowning or displacing hundreds of thousands of people.

But experts say the dam – and the region’s water resources in general – also presents an enormous opportunity for fractious Iraqi factions to work together, alongside neighboring nations, to secure and care for it.

They could also fail to seize the chance, and the Mosul Dam time bomb could go on ticking.

The dam is poorly constructed on a foundation of gypsum, a rock that slowly dissolves as water seeps under it. Workers need to pour concrete into the dam’s base every day to stop it from sinking into the river, cracking and unleashing as much as 11 billion cubic meters of water from the reservoir behind it.

What’s more, IS has not shown care for the weak water barrier, and has even threatened to blow it up.

“I shudder ... I can’t even think of the consequences of such a failure,” Iraqi ecologist Azzam Alwash said by phone from Irbil, capital of Iraq’s Kurdish region. He explained that Mosul, with a population of more than 660,000 people, would be drowned in 60 feet of water if the dam burst.

The Iraqi government is also exploring the construction of a $3 billion, almost 2-mile-wide slurry wall buttressing the dam itself – a “dam for the dam,” Alwash said.

But “in the end it’s probably going to be a failed experiment.” he added.

Fearing such an epic disaster, two of Iraq’s three main powers, the Shia Arab-led government in Baghdad and ethnic Kurds, who are Sunnis, have already started to work together, an Iraqi diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.

“Iraq has a history of not addressing structural problems, like lack of electricity, lack of fuel distribution, lack of water distribution,” said the diplomat.

“Before you could blame it on Saddam and the long war with Iran, Kuwait sanctions. But not now.”

The Kurds, with their peshmerga forces, have “fighters but not machinery,” the official said. Iraqi authorities, who are officially responsible for the dam, have the tools needed to maintain it, he added. The Kurds, for their part, already have enough water and hydropower not to need the Mosul dam, but their continued presence in the area helps provide a bulwark against IS.

But prospects for long-term maintenance run up against the political instability in Baghdad and vicious battles in the area around the dam. For now, security around the dam and Mosul is in the hands of the Kurdish peshmerga, who hope to secure the area as a route to other areas just to the west, where Kurds live.

The role of Iraq’s third faction, Arab Sunnis, remains unknown. The Iraqi diplomat doubts that Iraq’s Sunni tribal leaders will yield for long to the demands of IS, sometimes called the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS.

“The reason they liked ISIS before is because they were very bitter because the government [in Baghdad] wasn't addressing their needs,” the diplomat said.

But Iraq’s Sunnis found the imposition of the hardline group’s violent, puritanical interpretation of Islamic law hard to bear.

“After a day or two, no one can live under this regime this way,” he said.

But Sunnis will probably not submit to Kurds keeping hold of Mosul either, said Denise Natali, a senior research fellow at the National Defense University. This was an area the Sunni Arabs lost in the aftermath of the American invasion of 2003.

“The Kurds are insisting that it’s theirs, but they’re going to have to do some negotiation with Sunni Arab leaders” to keep control over Mosul and the surrounding area, Natali said.

But Iraqi Sunnis will be negotiating from a position of weakness, trapped between IS to the west, Shia-controlled Baghdad to the east and the Kurds to the north.

“Sunni Arabs don’t have anything,” Natali said. “They’re disenfranchised. They’ve got nothing. The Kurds have pushed this border several kilometers.”

Nevertheless, a well-maintained Mosul Dam is in the Sunnis’ interest, because if the dam breaks it will devastate their lands along the Tigris.

Meanwhile, Natali said, the Kurdish regional government and peshmerga fighters can’t hold the Mosul area or the dam on their own with the threat of IS looming.

“The Iraqi government is the one that has provided the Kurds with weapons and allowed other weapons to come through,” she said.

All the same, the Iraqi army failed to defend most of Mosul, abandoning their uniforms and fleeing their posts when IS blitzed through the city in June. With high morale, it was the peshmerga that successfully pushed IS out of the Mosul area, aided by American air support and Iraqi weapons.

Although the dam has been a catalyst for some cooperation, Alwash, the Iraqi ecologist, believes the risk it poses is too great to keep it running. He says officials should slowly drain the lake behind the dam and turn off the turbines that generate electricity.

The structure wouldn’t be removed, but Alwash recommends replacing the water and power it produces with power from Turkey, where the Tigris rises.

After decommissioning the dam, Iraq needs to start working with neighboring Turkey to negotiate a better deal for the water Ankara controls, with oil its bargaining chip, he said.

“Iraq can store the water it needs in the summer in Turkish reservoirs and we can regulate the flow with smaller dams than the Mosul Dam – ones built in more geologically stable areas,” Alwash said.

In shutting down the Mosul Dam, Iraq will lose a significant part of its capacity to produce electricity. To replace it, Baghdad could start trading oil for electricity from Turkey, Alwash suggests.

“Iraq can pay for the electricity with oil or gas which Turkey can burn close to Istanbul and we do not have to solve the political hot potato question – whose water is it?”

By burning Iraqi oil for electrical generation near its main city, Istanbul, and trading or selling electricity to Iraq that Turkey would have otherwise lost along transmission lines to the far corners of its territory, Ankara could make and save money.

“This way, Turkey can make money on electricity that would have dissipated as heat,” Alwash said in an email. “Iraq gets electricity during the peak periods so it does not have to invest in large electric infrastructure to generate electricity.”

He hopes these kinds of cooperative relationships over water and power will expand across the region, forming a borderless “Blue Crescent," a kind of European Union for the Middle East. He admits it's just a dream. 

Alwash also sees the potential for defeating IS in this kind of shrewd cooperation between neighboring countries. He believes that economic growth is the only way to stop the region’s extremely poor residents from buying into IS “promising them that heaven is better than their current state.”

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