“Dam Fools”

“Dam Fools,” Editorial, The New Republic, 31 October 2007

Mosul Dam, 2005

There is a doomsday scenario looming in Iraq, and it is not one that has to do with sectarian strife or Iranian hegemony. It is the possibility that a 65-foot wave could burst forth from the Mosul dam, some 250 miles north of Baghdad, unleashing a trillion gallons of water from the Tigris River and, within hours, drowning half a million people as well as two of the country’s three largest cities. It would be the Hurricane Katrina of Iraq, only orders of magnitude worse–a shocking story of negligence by the U.S. government. And it could come to pass unless we act soon.

The Mosul dam–a hydroelectric giant built on precariously soft rock–began raising alarm among engineers shortly following its construction in the early 1980s, and a report arguing that the dam was “leaking like a sieve and ready to collapse” came to American attention as early as May 2003. A 2006 report by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proclaimed it “the most dangerous dam in the world.” Then, late last month, Stuart Bowen, the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, let fly yet another report confirming that the dam is frighteningly unstable.

So far, the United States has struggled to keep a finger in the dyke. We’ve doled out $27 million for repair and reinforcement, while training Iraqi contractors and engineers in an effort to encourage local ownership of the project. But Bowen’s report reveals that little progress has been made toward a permanent solution. Frustratingly, the central obstacle appears to be the Iraqi government, which continues to deny–in the face of considerable evidence to the contrary–that the dam poses much of a threat.

Iraqis who have lived in the dam’s shadow for more than two decades may feel they can accept the risk. The United States cannot. For 500,000 Iraqis to drown on our watch would constitute a moral failure of historic proportions. A generation from now, no one will recall or care whether it was American or Iraqi bureaucrats who failed to take the danger seriously. All they will remember is the death of half a million Iraqis, and rightly so. Whatever money must be spent, whatever the diplomatic cost of twisting arms inside the Iraqi government, whatever other projects must be delayed, fixing the Mosul dam–and ensuring that Iraqis never wake up to a 65-foot wave–has to be worth the price.

Dayo Olopade

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