The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad Is Preparing for Iraq’s Mosul Dam to Burst
Dam breach could be inevitable
by JOSEPH TREVITHICK
Iraq’s Mosul Dam lies just outside Islamic State territory fewer than 50 miles from the Syrian border. If the dam fails, hundreds of thousands of people could die or lose their homes in flash floods along the length of the Tigris River.
In the face of this potential disaster, the U.S. State Department is hoping to keep the American embassy in Baghdad dry — at least for a short while.
On March 28, the State Department announced it was hiring MosCamp, Inc. to set up the company’s Aqua Dams around the embassy compound and at a separate site at the Iraqi capital’s international airport. Filled with water, these devices can keep out flood waters up to 10 feet high.
“An exhaustive analysis of the physical condition of the dam has been done,” the department explained in a so-called justification-and-approval document. “It has been determined that without repairs, it is a case of when not if failure will occur.”
Regulations require the U.S. government to supply one of these documents any time it awards a contract without first holding an open competition. For approximately $1.2 million, State wants MosCamp — also known as Gulf Coast Aqua Dams — to install its trademark black barriers and also teach embassy staff how to use them in an emergency.
Thanks to existing concrete walls that surround the diplomatic sites, the Louisiana-based company only has to place its temporary dams at various entry points. The barriers can safely remain in place, out in the sunlight, for up to a year, according to one of the firm’s Websites.
If the Mosul Dam collapses, the barriers might buy diplomats time to escape the torrent of water. The State Department has its own air arm for evacuating personnel from danger zones.
“The MosCamp [Aqua Dam] will limit the facilities and systems on the embassy compound that may incur damage which would impede full reoccupation of the compound … [and] reduce health risks to the remain behind contingent protecting the compound,” the State Department declared.
In the department’s estimation, the water-filled bags could help the embassy get back in operation in “days and weeks versus months and years.”
The largest dam in a country beset by more than a decade of near-constant violence, the Mosul Dam has represented a huge potential risk for many years. Towering a thousand feet above the surrounding landscape, the barrier keeps more than 36 billion cubic feet of water contained in the Lake Dahuk reservoir.
Islamic State briefly controlled the dam in 2014. Today Kurdish forces dominate the area immediately surrounding the facility.
If the Mosul Dam gives way, that water would rush downstream, sweeping away smaller communities and inundating cities. In September 2006, the U.S. Army Corps of engineers estimated that the city of Mosul, some 30 miles southeast of the dam, would quickly end up submerged under 65 feet of water. And 300 miles farther down river, residents of Baghdad would see up to 12 feet of water in places.
“In terms of internal erosion potential of the foundation, Mosul Dam is the most dangerous dam in the world,” the Army engineers declared, according to a report by the U.S. government’s watchdog agency for Iraq’s reconstruction. “If a small problem [at] Mosul Dam occurs, failure is likely.”
Unfortunately, political instability — to say nothing of all the insurgents — held up both immediate fixes and more permanent improvements. After Islamic State’s meteoric rise in the summer of 2014, the dam and much of northwestern Iraq effectively became no-go areas for government officials, domestic contractors and foreign companies.
On March 24, Iraqi authorities announced the start of an operation aimed at liberating Mosul and the surrounding areas from the brutal terror group. But the offensive has been slowed by Islamic State’s fierce resistance and the Iraqi army’s own poor morale.
On top of that, the offensive has exposed worsening friction between officials in Baghdad and Kurdish authorities in Erbil. “No one should expect the least success from the Iraqi army,” Kurdish colonel Mahdi Younis told USA Today. “They have no will to fight.”
Worse yet, the onset of Iraq’s rainy season has limited the Pentagon’s ability to provide critical air support to the troops on the ground. The extra rainfall and snowmelt could also worsen the situation at the dam. The State Department specifically warned about the weather raising the water level at Lake Dahuk.
Earlier in March, Baghdad announced that it had finalized a deal with Trevi Construction to work on the dam. But with the government still trying to pry Islamic State from the region, the Italian firm has yet to begin any repairs.
“We are not — the U.S. military, and in fact the coalition — is not involved in the Mosul Dam piece,” U.S. Army colonel Steve Warren, the Pentagon’s top spokesman for the campaign against the terrorists in Iraq and Syria, made clear to reporters during a press conference on Feb. 3. “This is something that the Iraq government is in charge of, and is conducting its international business.”
But if the situation doesn’t improve soon, American troops and diplomats in the country could find themselves underwater — or running for shelter at the U.S. embassy — along with thousands of Iraqis.
This article has been corrected to clarify that Islamic State does not control the Mosul Dam.