The Mosul dam has generated quite a bit of interest of late. The news that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) had captured the “most dangerous dam in the world”, suitably formerly known as the Saddam Dam, was widely reported in the media. Nour Malas produced an excellent report on the Mosul Dam and cited that the “potential for a 65-foot wave to engulf the northern city of Mosul, and even flood the central capital Baghdad” was part of the decision of the US to intervene in Iraq. Following US air strikes, the Mosul Dam was forced from the hands of ISIS and the Dam is now – we are led to believe, “safely” – in the hands of the Peshmerga.
Dams are often deemed to be an important part of many cities arrangements generating the necessary electricity and water supply. But dams can also be a threat, as the Mosul Dam illustrates. I have long been fascinated by dams as reworkings of landscapes and sociotechnical worlds, the entanglements of human-nonhuman actors and as pieces of urbanism far removed from the city. The idea that the Mosul Dam was “the most dangerous dam in the world” I found particularly intriguing, the idea that the dam under the control of ISIS was met with apocalyptic scenarios was specifically of interest.
So, I looked for the 2006 report by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) that called, according to Malas and numerous other journalists, the Mosul Dam “the most dangerous dam in the world”. And I searched and I searched. It was conceivable that the report was not in the public domain despite the fact that the US government and USACE have put a cache of documents on the Mosul Dam online. But then I found US Embassy comments on the document Relief and Reconstruction Funded Work at Mosul Dam, Mosul, Iraq that notes: “ITAO [The Iraq Transition Assistance Office] is not aware of the September report that declares Mosul to be the most dangerous dam in the world” and also warned that such a claim is “inflammatory and almost certainly disprovable”. Indeed, I had no idea how dangerous and frequent Dam failures are – the Mosul dam has significant competition.
Myths, deaths, and dams seem to be good bedfellows. And on further searching into dams it appears one of the startling aspects is not necessarily their urban arrangements but their financial. Jacques Leslie, author of Deep Water: The Epic Struggle over Dams, Displaced People and the Environment, had a interesting op-ed in the New York Times that highlighted the many undelivered promises of dams but also their crucial role in the creation of debt:
DAMS typically consume large chunks of developing countries’ financial resources, as dam planners underestimate the impact of inflation and currency depreciation. Many of the funds that support large dams arrive as loans to the host countries, and must eventually be paid off in hard currency. But most dam revenue comes from electricity sales in local currencies. When local currencies fall against the dollar, as often happens, the burden of those loans grows.
One reason this dynamic has been overlooked is that earlier studies evaluated dams’ economic performance by considering whether international lenders like the World Bank recovered their loans — and in most cases, they did. But the economic impact on host countries was often debilitating. Dam projects are so huge that beginning in the 1980s, dam overruns became major components of debt crises in Turkey, Brazil, Mexico and the former Yugoslavia.
This history is particularly important for the Arab world as it has been the site of extensive dam building. As Timothy Mitchell points out in The Rule of Experts the Aswan Low dam completed in 1902 inaugurated a new scale of twentieth-century engineering and I think it is right to view the Aswan dam as the first of the large scale dams that would include the High Dam of Aswan built in the 1960s. Mitchell notes that the Aswan dam resulted not just in a concentration in engineering but also the concentration of capital and true to being a dam “The dam cost twice the original budget.” Of course it was not the British – who occupied Egypt at the time and decided to construct the dam – who paid the heavy price for the dam but the Egyptian government.
Mitchell claims that the complex forms of calculation required by dam construction and to justify the expenditure resulted in a new field of cost-benefit analysis, a field that dams themselves have appeared unable to benefit from. And despite their dubious benefits and massive cost dams continue to be built. According to Leslie, there are 45,000 large dams worldwide in 140 countries at a cost of $2 trillion, many financed by the World Bank. So on top of a dams ability to generate generate electricity and produce a water supply, as well as flood entire cities through sabotage or failure, and their role in transforming entire ecologies, we should not forget the ability of dams to generate debt.