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Mosul dam, Iraq

The "most dangerous dam in the world" is since its conception in 1950 at the center of geopolitical wars and at risk of collapse due to a karstic terrain. Saddam Hussein, US Army and ISIS succeeded for the control of the structure, which is a 'ticking bom


“We survived Saddam, we survived ISIS, and we will survive the Mosul Dam”. This statement from the Kurdish farmer Mohammed Nazir [1] gives the sense of the magnitude of danger behind what the US Corps of Engineers called “the most dangerous dam in the world[3], at risk of failure due to its foundation defect. In fact, it was built on the wrong terrain, and at present is at serious risk of collapse and consequent ‘ecocide[2]. In fact, the foundation lies on a geological formation composed of alternating beds of marls, limestone, gypsum and claystone, i.e. water-soluble minerals. When water infiltrates in such strata, vacuums and voids create, compromising the structure’s stability in phenomena known as karstification or slope stability (Al-Ansari et al., 2015; Sissakian et al, 2014). A number of studies have been devoted to the understanding of possible effects of a failure of the dam. A simulation by the EU Joint Research Centre after a UNDAC mission on site concludes that if just 26% of the dam collapses, "a very high wave of water (in places 25m high, mean height around 12m) would arrive at Mosul city after 1h40min. The capital Baghdad is reached after about 3.5 days with a max water height of 8m and a mean of around 2m. A total of more than 6 million people will be affected by floodwaters, with two million of them facing water of more than 2m" (Annunziato et al, 2016). One of the main specialists of the case, Professor Al-Ansari, said that no matter what, the disaster is inevitable and “it will be worse than throwing a nuclear bomb on Iraq” [3]. He also confirms the EU's results, stating that about 500,000 civilians would die after a dam failure (Al-Ansari et al., 2015b). The idea of building dams in Iraq started in the first half of twentieth century due to increase of water demand by cities and the threat of halting waters by neighbouring Turkey and Syria who already built dams upstream of Euphrates and Tigris rivers (Al-Ansari et al., 2015). The discussion about the Mosul dam (also known as Saddam dam) started in 1950s and until 1980 some British, American, Finish, Yugoslav, Russian, French engineering firms succeeded one after the other in the design process. Works started during Saddam Hussein’s rule, who was launching an ambitious program of infrastructure development with the money coming from the nationalization of oil industry [1]. In this scenario, Saddam ordered the construction to begin in 1981 as multipurpose facility for downstream irrigation, flood control and hydropower. He was additionally urged by the military situation in the south of the country during the conflict with Iran: the dam would have helped preventing any flood from stranding the Army [1]. Finally, the dam was designed by a Swiss firm of consultants, a consortium of German and Italian companies (GIMOD, comprising the German Hochtief and the Italian Impregilo [7]) was asked to execute the civil works, while the Japanese Toshiba took charge of the electromechanical parts. The works finished in 1986, with a total cost of 2.6 billion US$ at the price level of the time (Al-Ansari et al., 2015). The chosen location was offering the largest potential reservoir, together with the opportunity to open up tens of thousands of acres north of the dam to agriculture. It is not clear how the big mistake of underestimation of stability risk have been made, and who is the real responsible. However, the general feeling is that hurry was dominating Saddam and his entourage, regardless the warnings advised by the Swiss consultants in charge of the design [1], [3]. In an interview, the Iraqi-American civil engineer Azzam Alwash who advised during construction works, commented about the stone memorial commemorating nineteen Chinese workers who died during the dam construction that “in Iraq, when laborers fell into wet cement during large infrastructure projects, it was common for the work to carry on. When you’re laying that much cement on a dam, you can’t stop” [1]. Shortly after the dam completion sinkholes and pools of water begun bubbling up on the banks downstream, and cracks on the terrain started appearing. Two measures were taken by the government: (i) a maintenance program through the ‘grouting’ technique (consisting of filling the voids with cement) and (ii) rushing to build the downstream Badush dam, having the task of containing the wave in case of a Mosul dam’s failure. Both operations were compromised in 1991, when sanctions were imposed on Iraq in the aftermath of the Gulf War. After US invasion in 2003 and the overthrow of Saddam, the US corps of Engineers undertook a $27m program to retake the grouting operations and finance assessment studies. But also in this scenario, corruption and mismanagement are on the agenda. Stuart Bowen, Jr, Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, in 2007, cited "lack of quality control, allowing deficient drawings, inadequate construction, incorrectly delivered equipment and materials, and failure to track completion" in the maintenance works [3]. The situation further complicated when fighters from the Islamic State (ISIS) occupied the dam together with the city of Mosul and its main grout manufacturing plant in 2014 [1] [4]. The dam was taken back after fighter jets, bombers and drones by American, Kurdish and Iraqi forces in late August 2014 [5] [6]. The irony is that from then on, the dam’s turbines (who could not have been shut down to maintain the reservoir level low) have continued providing electricity to Mosul city, which is under ISIS control. The Islamic State militants have earned millions of dollars by imposing taxes out of it, according to intelligence reports [1]. In the meanwhile, ‘solutioning’ of the foundation continued, and four significant worrying uneven movements of the dam sections have been registered since 2015. With ISIS occupation and the paralysis of Iraqi government preventing any evacuation of the downstream population or the adoption of alternative measure, the business-as-usual crash repair job appeared once again as best solution. In early 2016, the Italian firm Trevi S.p.A. (which 16% of capital is funded with Italian public money [8]) got a nearly €300m no-bid contract to continue with the urgent grouting operations under the patrol of hundreds of Italian and Kurdish soldiers. The Iraqi government asked and obtained credit from the World Bank. The New Yorker’s reporter Dexter Filkins [1] gives the feeling of the ‘ticking bomb’ drama of maintenance operations: “… a walk around the Mosul Dam gives you a sense of its scale and its problems [..] Here and there are gauges and cameras, part of a system that collects real-time information—water pressure, temperature, chemistry—that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers monitors around the clock […] the work of maintaining the dam is performed in the ‘gallery’, a tunnel that runs inside the base, four hundred feet below the top […] the engineers are engaged in what amounts to an endless struggle against nature. Using antiquated pumps as large as truck engines, they drive enormous quantities of liquid cement into the earth. Since the dam opened, in 1984, engineers […] have pumped close to a hundred thousand tons of grout - an average of ten tons a day […] In the meantime; there are just enormous quantities of gypsum that are washing away”. 

Basic Data
Name of conflict:Mosul dam, Iraq
State or province:Nineveh Governorate
Location of conflict:Mosul
Accuracy of locationHIGH (Local level)
Source of Conflict
Type of conflict. 1st level:Water Management
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Military installations
Interbasin water transfers/transboundary water conflicts
Dams and water distribution conflicts
Specific commodities:Land
Project Details and Actors
Project details

"The dam is 113 m high, 3650 m long including the spillway, has a 10 m top width and the crest level is 341m (a.s.l.). The dam is faced with rock and has an earth fill with a clay core. The maximum, normal and dead storage levels of the reservoir are 335, 330 and 300 m (a.s.l.) respectively. The dam was designed to impound 11.11 km3 of water at normal operation level, including 8.16 and 2.95 km3 of live storage and dead storage, respectively. The dam has a concrete spillway located on the left abutment of the main dam. The crest elevation of the spillway is 330 m (a.s.l.) and its length is 680 m. The spillway has five radial gates; measuring 13.5 m×13.5 m giving a discharge of 12600 m3 .sec-1 at the maximum reservoir level of 338 m (a.s.l.) [...] The power house is located in the toe of the dam embankment and includes four turbines with total generation capacity of 750 MW [...] The length of the reservoir is about 45km and its width ranges from 2 to 14 km with water surface area about 380 km2" (Al-Ansari et al., 2015)

Project area:5,600,000
Level of Investment for the conflictive project2,900,000,000
Type of populationRural
Affected Population:6,000,000
Company names or state enterprises:Trevi Group from Italy - Mantainance works
Hochtief from Germany
Toshiba from Japan
Salini Impregilo from Italy
Relevant government actors:Saddam Hussein, Iraqi government and Army, ISIS, US Army, Italian Army, US Corps of Engineers, EU Joint Research Centre
International and Finance Institutions International Finance Corporation (of World Bank) (IFC)
Conflict & Mobilization
IntensityHIGH (widespread, mass mobilization, violence, arrests, etc...)
Reaction stageLATENT (no visible resistance)
Groups mobilizing:Local scientists/professionals
International scientists
Forms of mobilization:Creation of alternative reports/knowledge
Development of alternative proposals
Media based activism/alternative media
Objections to the EIA
Environmental ImpactsVisible: Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Floods (river, coastal, mudflow), Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation, Soil erosion, Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality, Large-scale disturbance of hydro and geological systems, Reduced ecological / hydrological connectivity
Potential: Desertification/Drought, Food insecurity (crop damage), Global warming, Soil contamination, Groundwater pollution or depletion, Other Environmental impacts
Other Environmental impactsRisk of 'tsunami'-like wave
Health ImpactsVisible: Accidents, Mental problems including stress, depression and suicide, Deaths
Potential: Violence related health impacts (homicides, rape, etc..), Health problems related to alcoholism, prostitution, Other Health impacts, Malnutrition
Other Health impactsRisk of 'ecocide'
Socio-economical ImpactsVisible: Increase in Corruption/Co-optation of different actors, Increase in violence and crime, Militarization and increased police presence, Violations of human rights, Loss of landscape/sense of place, Other socio-economic impacts
Potential: Displacement, Loss of livelihood, Loss of traditional knowledge/practices/cultures, Social problems (alcoholism, prostitution, etc..), Land dispossession
Other socio-economic impactsImpoverishment of the country due to high construction/maintenance costs
Project StatusIn operation
Conflict outcome / response:Corruption
Deaths, Assassinations, Murders
Negotiated alternative solution
New Environmental Impact Assessment/Study
Military occupation
Proposal and development of alternatives:A team of experts provided a series of recommendations for future actions (Al-Ansari et al, 2015b, p. 108), including (i) improvement of the grouting techniques; (ii) installation of pipe piezometers for monitoring; (iii) abandoning the idea of constructing a diaphragm, both technologically and financially unfeasible; (iv) conduct a seismic assessment; (v) resuming construction of Badush Dam as protection tool in case of Mosul dam failure and parallel decommissioning of the latter; (vi) definition of a Emergy Action Plan at National level;
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:No
Briefly explain:The large majority of Iraqi population have just endured the costs of a dangerous infrastructure since the time of its conception. The dam has been a geopolitical 'weapon' and a commodity rather than a development infrastructure
Sources & Materials
References to published books, academic articles, movies or published documentaries

Al-Ansari, N., Issa, I., Sissakian, V., Adamo, N., Knutsson, S. (2015b) Mystery of Mosul Dam the most Dangerous Dam in the World: dam failure and its consequences. Journal of Earth Sciences and Geotechnical Engineering, vol. 5, no.3, 2015, 95-111. Scienpress LTD
[click to view]

Annunziato, A., Andredakis, I., Probst, P. (2016) Impact of flood by a possible failure of

the Mosul dam. European Commission Joint Research Centre. doi:10.2788/689469

Al-Ansari, N., Issa, I., Sissakian, V., Adamo, N., Knutsson, S. (2015) Mystery of Mosul Dam the most Dangerous Dam in the World: The project. Journal of Earth Sciences and Geotechnical Engineering, vol. 5, no.3, 2015, 15-31. Scienpress LTD
[click to view]

Sissakian, V., Al-Ansari, N., Knutsson, S. (2014) Karstification Effect on the Stability of Mosul Dam and Its Assessment, North Iraq. Engineering, 6, 84-92.
[click to view]

[1] Filkins, D. (2017) A bigger problem than ISIS? The Mosul Dam is failing. A breach would cause a colossal wave that could kill as many as a million and a half people. The New Yorker. Accessed: 1st March 2017
[click to view]

[2] Borger, J. (2016) Mosul dam engineers warn it could fail at any time, killing 1m people. The Guardian. Accessed: 1st March 2017
[click to view]

[3] Bibbo, B. (2016) Mosul Dam collapse 'will be worse than a nuclear bomb'. Al Jazeera. Accessed: 1st March 2017
[click to view]

[4] Bender, J. (2014) ISIS Has Seized Iraq's Largest Dam, And What Happens Next Is Critical. Business Insider. Accessed: 1st March 2017
[click to view]

[5] The Guardian (2014) Iraqi and Kurdish forces recapture Mosul dam from Isis. Accessed: 1st March 2017
[click to view]

[6] Ackerman, S. (2014) 'Recapture' of Mosul Dam from Isis a major step forward, says Obama. The Guardian. Accessed: 1st March 2017
[click to view]

[7] InfoAut (2016) Mosul: cosa nasconde la diga di Renzi. Accessed: 1st March 2017
[click to view]

[8] Forti, M. (2016) L’esercito italiano a Mosul fa da scorta a un’azienda privata?. Internazionale. Accessed: 1st March 2017
[click to view]

Related media links to videos, campaigns, social network

Newsy (Youtube, 2016). If The Mosul Dam Bursts, It Could Kill More People Than The Iraq War
[click to view]

Intel Analyst (Youtube, 2014) Exclusive Video: ISIS in Control of the Mosul Dam!
[click to view]

Meta information
Contributor:AB (ICTA-UAB)
Last update18/08/2019
Conflict ID:2650
Legal notice / Aviso legal
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