Mosul Dam recapture reveals poor Iraqi infrastructure

Mosul Dam recapture reveals poor Iraqi infrastructure

The recapture of the Mosul Dam from the Islamic State (IS) by Iraqi and Kurdish forces underscores the instability of Iraq’s infrastructure. Without continued US military support, IS is sure to take advantage of Iraq’s remaining dams, water infrastructure, and electrical grid.

After a two-day ground offensive backed by dozens of US airstrikes, Iraqi and Kurdish forces recaptured Iraq’s largest dam, slowing the Islamic State’s (IS) momentous territorial gains and bringing a critical piece of infrastructure back into government control.

The Mosul Dam, located on the north end of the Tigris River, provides flood control, water supply, and hydropower to over 2 million residents in nearby Mosul and the surrounding Nineveh Province of northern Iraq. A breach of the dam, which also controls water flows into Baghdad and the south, could impose widespread famine and flood major Iraqi cities.

United States military assistance in the Mosul Dam recapture is reminiscent of the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, when securing the dam was one of the Special Forces’ first objectives. But what the Special Forces found in 2003 was not so much a marvel of engineering ingenuity as it was a Saddam Hussein-era flex of muscle, resulting in a state project lacking sufficient structural integrity.

According to a study by the US Army Corps of Engineers (CoE), the dam was constructed on “highly variable units” of rock that are soluble in water, causing sinkholes to reach the surface of the dam. Sinkholes could lead to a breach, sending floods of water down the river and into the surrounding Tigris River valley. The CoE describes the dam as “the most dangerous in the world,” noting the “extraordinary engineering measures” necessary to ensure its survival.

With this in mind, one could argue that the Mosul Dam poses as much of a threat to itself as the IS militants that captured it last month. And while the dam’s security is critical in the battle against IS, it underscores the greater infrastructural instability that has plagued Iraq for decades. Without continued US military engagement, IS is sure to capitalize upon the insecurity of Iraq’s remaining dams, water and energy infrastructure, and electrical grid.

Poor infrastructure threatens Iraqi security

The Mosul Dam is not the only water impounding facility under threat of capture by the Islamic State. The Haditha Dam is also vulnerable, according to the deputy head of Iraq’s Anbar province. Located just 150 miles north of Baghdad, the dam regulates the Euphrates River and supplies more than 30 percent of Iraq’s electricity.

Without control of major dams, an already poor Iraqi water and irrigation infrastructure will further deteriorate. Agriculture provides 35 percent of Iraq’s non-oil GDP, yet misdirected state resources have stifled the government’s ability to invest in infrastructure to maintain water facilities. This has resulted in decreased water resources and increased salinity, hindering millions who rely on local agriculture for income and survival.

Deteriorating water quality has put some 40 percent of historically irrigated areas out of production, according to the World Bank. And with IS already in control of four of Iraq’s most fertile provinces, the viability of remaining agricultural land could be at risk.

Iraq’s poor oil and energy infrastructure is a vulnerable target for IS militants, as well. Over 90 percent of Iraq’s energy needs are met with petroleum, and the country boasts the fifth-largest proven crude oil reserves in the world. Only a small fraction of its fields are in production, however, due to its constrained refining and exporting infrastructure.

While Iraq produces crude at full capacity in the south, production in the north has been sabotaged by militant takeovers and deteriorating pipelines. IS reportedly controls seven oil fields and two major refineries in northern Iraq, giving the group a consistent revenue stream to fund its territorial advance. Reports indicate that IS is selling some 10,000 barrels of oil per day to local Arab and Kurdish groups.

Energy and electricity security in Iraq are sure to suffer as a result of IS oil field seizures. Before the recent IS onslaught, daily electricity outages in Iraq were not uncommon. Although Iraq has plans to “triple its generating capacity by 2015,” it currently imports much of its energy from floating electricity barges owned by Turkey and Iran in the Persian Gulf.

As a result, many Iraqis rely on generators to run their homes and even power small buildings. Generators accounted for 8 percent of total energy usage last year, and with the state losing access to key oil and energy facilities, this figure is only likely to increase.

The security of Iraq’s dams, oil fields and electrical grid will depend upon the effectiveness of its military response to recent IS territorial gains. Fortunately for Iraqi and Kurdish forces, the US military will likely continue its campaign against IS fighters, weapons, and equipment to ensure the Mosul Dam and other critical facilities are kept in state control.

The real challenge of transforming and rebuilding Iraqi infrastructure, however, will have to wait for another day.

About Author

Rami Ayyub

Rami is an analyst with a US Defense and Space firm, where he works in strategic planning and finance for Civil and Defense programs. He holds Bachelor degrees in Finance and Classical Music from the University of Maryland, College Park.