Iraq's Largest Dam Could Collapse as Extremists Advance

Image: Iraq's Largest Dam Could Collapse as Extremists Advance Mosul dam on the Tigris River. (Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images)

Wednesday, 06 Aug 2014 09:02 AM

By Elliot Jager

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Iraq's dam at Mosul, the country's largest, is in danger of collapsing as Sunni ISIS extremists sweep across the northern part of the country, Business Insider reported.

Kurdish fighters in the north — who are Sunni but not Arabs — are waging ferocious battles against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, in the area of the threatened dam. The Shiite government in Baghdad has agreed to provide air support for the Kurds though analysts are doubtful the sorties will make any difference, The New York Times reported.

The dam, built by Saddam Hussein around 1980, rests on a foundation of soluble gypsum that must be bolstered by permanent grouting. Failure to maintain the grouting regime will result in the dissolving of the bedrock under the dam.

Richard Coffman, a civil engineer and expert on conditions at the Mosul Dam, said, "It's been under continuous grouting since the 1980s. The dam is grouted six times a week to prevent it from failing," Business Insider reported.

It would be disastrous if the grouting was not maintained. "It would be a pretty rapid dissolution of the dam given the constant grouting. I can't give an exact time, but the frequency of the grouting makes me believe that the dissolution would occur quickly," Coffman said.

If the dam collapses, Mosul, about 250 miles northwest of Baghdad, would be flooded within hours and Baghdad would be under more than 10 feet of water in a matter of days, Business Insider reported.

ISIS could use the dam as part of its military onslaught. When it seized Fallujah Dam in January, the extremists triggered flooding that led to shortages of drinking water for hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, according to Business Insider.

Even if ISIS wanted to leave the dam intact, it is not clear that it has the knowhow to do so. "Grouting is typically a learned skill done by experts," Coffman said. "I can't speak to the skill of the insurgents, but I'd imagine that they might have some trouble with this," according to Business Insider.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers found in 2007 that the dam was brittle and warned that if it collapsed 500,000 people could lose their lives,  The Washington Post reported at the time.

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