Potential Tabqa disaster should have governments rethinking the wisdom of damming rivers
The immense hazards these projects now present overshadow the original intentions with which they were built.
With the war in Syria in its end-stage, details have been trickling out on the reality of western involvement in the conflict. The NATO coalition’s bombing campaign against areas held by the ISIL terrorist militia and its affiliates was praised in officially sanctioned outlets for its avoidance of civilian casualties, or “collateral damage” as non-western victims are typically anonymized. Now even the alliance’s cheerleaders are being forced to acknowledge that the NATO bombing killed far more Syrian and Iraqi civilians than was officially claimed and certainly far more than the number of actual terrorists eliminated.
In the past week, The New York Times brought to light one of the most outrageous violations carried out by the standard-bearers of the “Free World,” which could have, and may yet still lead to an unconscionable atrocity.
The Tabqa Dam, which holds back some 25km of the Euphrates River in Syria’s north was clearly identified on a no-strike list that NATO operatives are known to have been aware of. Despite this, an elite American special forces unit, ‘Task Force 9’ struck the facility on March 26- 2017, threatening the dam’s integrity and the lives of tens of thousands of Syrians living downriver with an apocalyptic wall of water. With the territory around the facility still not fully controlled by the Syrian government, the possibility that the dam could fail at some point in the future remains a dreadful probability. Were that to happen, the deluge would likely kill not only tens of thousands of Syrians but potentially hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. Several major dams mark the Euphrates’ path through Iraq before it reaches the Persian Gulf. The failure of one upriver could easily overwhelm others downstream, threatening a cascade of catastrophic breaches that would magnify the human toll of what would already be an unmitigated disaster.
A common regional hazard
Unfortunately, Tabqa is one example of many dams constructed throughout the region from the 19th to 21st centuries in imitation of the west’s industrial-capitalist mode of development or as an integral part of it.
In Iraq, the Mosul dam looms large as perhaps the country’s worst potential man-made disaster. Hastily built under the former regime of Saddam Hussein in the 1980s, the Mosul dam’s construction was of notoriously low quality, requiring constant maintenance from the beginning of its operation until today. Were the dam to collapse, around 11 billion cubic meters of water would surge throughout the country in a matter of hours, causing inundation as far as the capital Baghdad. With a projected death toll of 500,000 to 1.5 million, the destruction of two-thirds of the country’s agricultural land, and the obliteration of entire cities along the Tigris River, such a disaster has been compared to the effects of a nuclear bomb. In 2014 ISIL briefly seized the area around the dam, halting its crucial maintenance and raising fears the terrorists might deliberately destroy it.
That incident was far from the first time that tens of millions of civilians were the potential victims of major dams becoming military targets. In 2009, the far-right Israeli deputy Prime Minister Avigdor Lieberman repugnantly suggested that if war were to ever break out with Egypt again, "Tel Aviv" should target the Aswan High dam with nuclear missiles. The consequences of such unconscionable actions would doubtless earn the perpetrators their place in history beside the likes of Genghis Khan.
With Ethiopia having built its own monumental construction to control the Nile’s upstream flow, Egypt and Sudan now also threaten military action against the facility, fearing it will limit their access to the river’s flow still further.
Do dams have a future?
The immense hazards these projects now present overshadow the original intentions with which they were built, namely, to tame often deadly and unpredictable flooding, open up more land to irrigation and produce hydroelectric power.
Contemporary science as well as the local experience has shown that damming rivers has many unforeseen and undesirable environmental effects. The distribution of silt through flooding has since been shut off, leaving downstream farmers dependent on chemical fertilizers to maintain their yields, perpetuating a vicious cycle that ultimately degrades the lands’ fertility.
In the case of the Arab Mashreq, Iran and Turkey, interstate disputes over water allocations have only escalated throughout the decades, as individual states have typically pursued their own nationally defined policies rather than enacting holistic management of the Tigris-Euphrates basin at the regional level.
This highly fragmented system of governance has left the downstream states; Iraq, Syria and Egypt at the greatest disadvantage. While Baghdad is the most severely affected country, it has nonetheless enacted its own massive dam-building projects which only exacerbate domestic water shortages, pollution, and land degradation.
There is evidently no one-size-fits-all solution for each country or indeed for each individual dam, but the standing principle needs to be that the life-giving waters and the fertile silts they carry must be allowed to flow freely again. One way to achieve this would be to dismantle the dams. The post-2003 destruction of the southern barrages built by Saddam offered just a small foretaste of the natural regeneration that would take place were this to happen at the national scale. Much of the Mesopotamian Marshes, having all but dried up, were reflooded and began to regrow, allowing some of their ancient inhabitants, the Marsh Arabs, to return and resume their traditional way of life.
For those unwilling to undo the years of labor put into these projects, an alternative would be to gradually release the reservoirs during the flooding season, mimicking the natural flooding cycle while mitigating the hazards of inundation and regaining the deposition of silts. In the case of Egypt, this would cause no small amount of disruption as economic and social life would have to accommodate the annual rising of the water level as centuries passed. However, given the presence of the dam, this process would finally be subject to human manipulation and precisely scheduled every year. This would also give a measure of access to those communities originally displaced by the filling of the reservoirs as the water level would seasonally drop.
Ultimately, in a world of increasingly desperate water shortages, the regional states will have to cooperatively utilize the gifts of modern science and ecology while looking to the past for guidance on how to live harmoniously with the rivers they depend upon for survival. Unusually for the region, that is a goal all states can equally share in.