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US Embassy in Iraq Issues Mosul Dam Failure Warning


Photo by, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

The US Embassy in Baghdad, Iraq recently issued stern warnings about the possible breach of the Mosul Dam, stating that the “Mosul Dam faces a serious and unprecedented risk of catastrophic failure with little warning.” This is in the aftermath of the August 2014 “Battle for Mosul Dam” over control of the dam between Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and Kurdish Peshmerga forces who were supported by Iraqi troops and US-led Coalition airstrikes.  Now the risk is not just control of the dam by ISIL, but the inability to continue maintenance and regular running of the dam. This is a stark look at how resources like water face additional stresses during times of increased state fragility, instability, conflict and a changing climate (more on that here). 

The State Department Factsheet lists a series of ways in which the failure of the Mosul Dam and the resulting floodwave will have catastrophic consequences in a region already facing significant threats, and gives new meaning to the concept of “cascading disasters.”

Here is a sampling of some of the potential consequences of a dam failure drawn from the factsheet:

  • The approximately 500,000 to 1.47 million Iraqis residing along the Tigris River in areas at highest risk from the projected floodwave probably would not survive its impact unless they evacuated the floodzone. A majority of Baghdad’s 6 million residents also probably would be adversely affected— experiencing dislocation, increased health hazards, limited to no mobility, and losses of homes, buildings, and services.
  • 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.
  • Two-thirds of Iraq’s high-yielding irrigated wheat farmland is in the Tigris River basin and probably would be heavily damaged.
  • Some parts of Baghdad would be flooded, which could include Baghdad International Airport.
  • Much of the territory projected to be damaged by a dam breach is contested or ISIL-controlled, suggesting an authority-directed evacuation is unlikely, and that some evacuees may not have freedom of movement sufficient to escape.
  • 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.

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