Build a dam, break a wall

March 5, 2016

At the beginning of this February, the Iraqi government announced that the Italian Group Trevi, whose headquarters are located in Cesena, won the 2 billion euros contract to reconstruct the Mosul dam, in northern Iraq.

In the meanwhile, Rome and Baghdad are in the middle of a negotiation related to the Italian government’s intentions to send 450 soldiers in order to protect the area around the dam and the construction site itself. Italy already has a contingent of 750 troopers between Baghdad and Erbil, involved in the operation Prima Parthica, which is part of the Inherent Resolve international mission aimed at training local army and police forces. However, some members of the Iraqi establishment have expressed their doubts about this further deployment of foreign troops within their territory. Among the others, the minister of Water Resources Mushsin al Shammary, on the last 20th December declared, “Iraq does not need any foreign force to protect its own territory, plants and people working on them.” For this reason, no official decision has been taken yet. 


But which are the reasons why protecting and making the dam safe is of such great concern for the Iraqi government and the international coalition?

A brief picture of the background could be useful to understand the centrality of the issue.

The dam is located on the path of Tigris River, in the region of Ninawa, 50 km in the north of Mosul. The construction of the structure started in 1980, upon order of the former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein. An Italian and German consortium led by the company Hochtier Aktiengesellschaft completed the project in 1984. The entire project cost 1.5 billion dollars and it amounts to the fourth biggest water plant in the Middle East. The dam holds a lake containing 8 billions of cubic meters of water. A collapse of the structure would mean the destruction of the entire city of Mosul. The problem is that the ground on which the dam is built is extremely fragile, since it is mainly composed of gypsum, a mineral that melts in contact with water. In order to keep the situation under control, since 2007 some doses of cement have been continuously injected in the structure. The potentially destructive effects of a collapse of the dam make it one of the most dangerous dikes in the world.


As the structural problems of the plant were not enough, one of the main concerns derives from the risk that the IS militants could use the dam as some sort of “water bomb”, as they did with the Fallujah dam at the beginning of May 2014. Such an action, in this case, would have dreadful consequences, as the crumble of the Mosul dam could cause at least 500.000 victims.

During the summer of 2014, thanks also to the American airstrikes, the Peshmerga forces managed to win back the area around the dam. Since then, the state of the site is relatively stable, currently being under the control of the Iraqi Kurdistan.


However, it is crucial that Rome carries on the negotiations concerning the deployment of troops with accuracy, in order to convey the right message to Baghdad. In my opinion, the intervention per se could transmit the idea that Western Countries don’t look at the Middle East just as a sterile theater of violence and tragedy. If well explained, it could be representative of an attempt to breathe new life into a country that has almost lost its hope in the last decade.

But, in order to avoid misunderstandings, I think that we should listen to the strong oppositions coming from some of the Iraqi authorities, which tend to see any foreign military intervention almost as a hostile invasion of the country. If we put ourselves in the shoes of a nation that has experienced any external action as an attempt to take the control of the region, it is not difficult to understand and even share their distress.

Personally, I am very confident about the successful evolution of this project, since it could really mean a positive change of our role in the Middle East context and of our relationship with its communities.



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