The Humanitarian Crisis Looming at the Mosul Dam

If the Mosul Dam breaks, war-torn Iraq could face a disaster “a thousand times worse” than Hurricane Katrina.

By Alexander H. Maurice.

Without ongoing repair, the stone foundation of Iraq’s Mosul Dam is eroding away. If it breaks, it will unleash a destructive wave over 20 meters high that will wreck everything in its path as it surges over Mosul, a city of half a million people, and on toward Baghdad. “It could be a year from now. It could be tomorrow,” said the dam’s former chief engineer in a Guardian interview. If nothing is done to repair the dam, it will create a horrendous humanitarian crisis in an already overstressed region. In February, the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad warned that the dam poses a “serious and unprecedented risk of catastrophic failure with little warning” and that precautions should be taken immediately.

While the threat level has reached excessive heights, the situation has been a long time building. The Mosul Dam sits on the Tigris River, just over 50 kilometers upriver from Mosul in northern Iraq. The dam, which holds over 11 billion cubic meters of water in Lake Dahuk, supplies not only Mosul but much of Iraq with electricity. The United Nations calls it the “most important hydropower station” in the country—and this is the structure the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers considers the “most dangerous dam in the world”.

Construction on the dam began under Saddam Hussein in 1981, after five international companies had studied and suggested different options for where the dam could be built. The area that was ultimately chosen was a karst area, a geological term for a landscape formed of soluble rocks—in this case, gypsum. The danger in building a dam on karst is obvious: the water can wash the foundation out from under it.

Engineers recommended a …

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