The cover image of this paper was taken from the Trevi SPA website at the Media Gallery section, available at the following link: https://www.trevispa.com/it/MediaGallery/diga-di-mosul.
The control of water resources has always been an unavoidable necessity for human beings. Bridges, ports and canals are in fact among the most strategic infrastructures built throughout time in various parts of the world and in different historical eras. As a result of the mighty technological and engineering developments that have occurred in recent decades, nowadays it is possible to build major water structures capable of exerting enormous control over entire ecosystems and regions: we are talking about dams or, to be more precise, “mega-dams.” Imposing in height and power, mega-dams are currently the cause of numerous disputes at the international level between sovereign states. Very often the construction, and especially the management, of these infrastructures gives rise to so-called Tranboundary Water Conflicts (TWCs) between countries that, despite themselves, share one or more waterways. In this regard, one need only think of the recurrent tensions between Turkey and Syria over the management of the Euphrates River or the troubling geopolitical situation between Egypt and Ethiopia over Addis Ababa’s planned Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the Blue Nile.
Technically, the Mosul Dam falls squarely into the category of mega-dams. Located on the Tigris River in the northwestern part of Iraq, it is the largest dam in the country and the fourth largest in the entire Middle East. It is about 60 km from Mosul, a city of great regional strategic and demographic importance1. Its construction began under Saddam Hussein’s regime on January 25, 19812 and it went into operation relatively quickly, on July 7, 1986. 113 meters high and 3.6 kilometers long, the dam is part of a multipurpose project designed for three different purposes:
1) to provide water as an irrigation source;
2) to exert flood control function;
3) hydroelectric power generation.
In short, it is an exceedingly economically and socially significant water infrastructure for the entire North-Iraqi region.
Fi. 1: The Mosul Dam as seen from above
Fig. 2: Iraqi map
A structure of this magnitude needs constant maintenance by highly trained personnel. Mega-dams are complex works, difficult to build and even more difficult to maintain, especially because of the immense amount of water to be handled. In the case of the Mosul Dam, keep in mind that the volume of the reservoir is about 11,100 million cubic meters of water.
This is a gigantic water mass that if mismanaged or artfully tampered with could cause not only severe inconvenience to millions of Iraqi citizens, but also death and destruction throughout the country. In this regard, according to experts from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the destruction of the dam would cause massive damage in terms of human lives (about half a million people). In addition, according to the technical examination of Nadhir al-Ansari, an Iraqi engineer who participated in the construction of the dam and now lives and teaches in Sweden, tampering with the dam could result in major accidents capable of causing the death of a million people in addition to an unprecedented economic crisis throughout Iraq.
Apparently, the above numbers could be considered alarmist, especially with regard to the number of casualties. In fact, according to a number of international studies,3 a sudden failure of the dam would cause a very powerful fluvial tidal wave capable of causing very serious actual damage. The wave that would be released, according to the experts, would be capable of reaching Baghdad, some 350 km away from Mosul, within 6 hours. The Iraqi capital would essentially be overrun by millions of cubic meters of water capable of literally bringing most productive activities to their knees, in addition to being a harbinger of enormous human disruption. Moreover, it is estimated that, albeit with less power, the wave could also cause disruption in Basra, the large southern metropolis more than 400 kilometers away from Baghdad, located at the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. In light of these interesting as well as worrisome facts, the Mosul Dam has often been referred to as Iraq’s real weapon of mass destruction.4
Italian involvement in the defense and maintenance of the great dam
When Mosul was captured by the Islamic State in June 2014, Iraq and the international community took the blow, so to speak. Not only, in fact, had one of Iraq’s major cities fallen under the control of the black terrorists; after a few months it even became one of their capitals along with the Syrian city of Raqqa, conquered a few months earlier in January 2014. Following these events, the security of the dam became paramount. As mentioned, Mosul is only 60 kilometers away from the large water facility. If the latter had fallen into the wrong hands, the consequences for Iraq could have been catastrophic. To complicate an already exceedingly thorny situation, over time the dam had shown signs of failure in several places. In fact, it needed upgrading work, as it was an infrastructure built since 1981; moreover, like all large dams, it is subject to very fast wear and tear, especially due to sediment that, over the years, can clearly erode some of the supporting structures.
In short, the Mosul Dam in early 2015 was in a precarious condition, due to lack of proper maintenance, and was in danger of falling under the control of unscrupulous religious fanatics, ready to do anything to impose their distorted worldview.
The Iraqi government, in order to resolve the issue of the dam’s deterioration, issued an international call for tenders aimed at companies specializing in the maintenance of major infrastructure. In March 2016, this tender was won by our company Trevi SPA, to which the Ministry of Water Resources in Baghdad entrusted a major rehabilitation project5. However, in those months the situation in the Middle East was far from calm. The Islamic State in 2016 was at the height of its territorial expansion, controlling vast regions straddling eastern Syria and northwestern Iraq. The Italian company based in Cesena was therefore tasked with the restoration of a waterworks of extreme strategic importance under conditions of enormous pressure, due to the presence of hostile and dangerous elements within a few tens of kilometers of the dam. To remedy this problem, the Italian government, which in those months was headed by Matteo Renzi, decided to send logistical and military support to defend both the dam and the technicians sent to the site by Trevi to honor the contract signed with Baghdad. The Italian military mission, with the evocative name Prima Parthica6, was composed of 1,500 soldiers who were tasked with protecting the dam from Islamic State attacks and defending Trevi’s workers and engineers engaged in the renovation. Among the various tasks under the operation was also to provide military training to the Kurdish-Iraqi troops stationed in the KRG (Kurdish Regional Government), the Kurdish-majority northern autonomous region with the capital Erbil. In short, Italian involvement in that part of the world had multifaceted purposes involving various areas.
Fig. 3: Italian military defending the Mosul Dam.
Fig. 4 Italian military training local troops
Sending Italian troops to Iraqi soil was part of a context of protecting Rome’s national interests in the Middle East, especially in a nation considered as strategic as Iraq. In addition to Trevi, in fact, there were and still are numerous companies from the Bel Paese operating in the Iraqi economic fabric. First and foremost is ENI, present in Iraq since 2009, which conducts hydrocarbon development activities over an area of more than 1,000 square kilometers, 446 of which are directly managed by the Italian multinational.
Production and development activities are governed by a Technical Service Contract (TSC). Production is mainly provided by the Zubair field, west of Basra, in which Eni has a 41.6 percent share and which in 2018 alone produced as many as 34,000 barrels per day (in the Italian company’s share). Development activities, on the other hand, involve the execution of the so-called ERP (Enhanced Redevelopment Plan), or a plan to increase oil production for the Zubair project, which will allow it to reach the production level of 700,000 barrels per day in the coming years.
In addition to the Six-legged Dog, Bonatti and Renco, two other major Italian companies that have been operating in the country in joint ventures since late 2017, are also present in Iraq. They carry out an important maintenance function on the eight turbo-gases that feed the Zubair plants, where, moreover, ENI itself operates. In addition, according to data provided by the Farnesina economic observatory,7 there would be numerous Italian companies active throughout Iraq. Among the best known, it is worth mentioning Ge-Bh Nuovo Pignone (supplies machinery, equipment and products derived from oil refining), Maeg Costruzioni, Mdt – Mc Drill Technology (produces machinery and equipment), Panigada Engineering, Melete (specializes in oil refining), Pitaly (supplies machinery, equipment and construction), Saipem, Sicim SPA (construction), SSE (Sirio Sistemi Elettronici, deals with electronic, electromedical and optical products).
Rome’s direct involvement in the defense and maintenance of the Mosul Dam is a clear sign of how much Italy cares about protecting water resources in a key country like Iraq. Of course, as we have seen, there are many interests that bind us to the Arab country, from the construction sector to the energy sector. Nevertheless, the Prima Parthica mission, which has brought as many as 1,500 soldiers to Iraqi territory, was launched with the primary objective of guarding the dam and overseeing the defense of the Italian personnel operating there. If we exclude the contingent stationed in Lebanon, which has been present since 2006 with Operation “Leonte,” the Italian mission in Iraq was the largest in terms of personnel numbers. In 2019, that is, when Prima Parthica ended, the number of Italian soldiers engaged in missions abroad was about 5,700 in more than 20 countries, from Kosovo to Afghanistan, from Libya to Somalia in addition to the two aforementioned Arab nations. So, more than 26 percent of the military deployed around the world was allocated to the defense of the Mosul Dam.
Such direct involvement on the part of Italy, a country traditionally reluctant to send substantial numbers of troops into the field, forces us to make a couple of reflections. First, it is worth noting how much attention water issues have gradually gained both at Palazzo Chigi and at the Farnesina. Italy has shown itself to be one of the first European nations to take seriously a problem that will be increasingly present in the coming years in various parts of the world: access to water and the struggle for control of water sources. The success of the entire Iraqi operation has made Rome a credible global interlocutor in this regard. Second, Italian activism in the maintenance and protection of the Mosul Dam has opened a new and interesting chapter in our diplomatic strategy. We are talking about the so-called “hydro-diplomacy,” which has enabled Rome not only to support a friendly nation in difficulty, but has also greatly increased our country’s presence in the socio-economic fabric of Iraq. The ties between Italy and Iraq after the successful dam restoration operation are very strong; this opens up positive scenarios both for our other companies that want to invest in the Arab country and for the institutional proximity between Rome and Baghdad, which are increasingly united by a relationship of mutual trust.
1 According to data provided by the Iraqi government, Mosul is a populous northern metropolis with more than a 1,600,000 inhabitants. Precisely because of its great strategic value, the Islamic State’s capture of the city in June 2014 caused a great stir in the West.
2 For a long time it was identified in both Iraq and the Middle East as “Saddam’s Dam.”
3 For further details on this issue, see the report published by Dexter Filkins, A Bigger Problem Than ISIS?, in “The New Yorker,” January 2, 2017.
4 For further details on the topic see Francesca Simi & Paola Sconzo, Settlement Dynamics on the Banks of the Upper Tigris, Iraq: The Mosul Dam Reservoir Survey (1980), in “Journal of Open Archaeology Data,” Vol. 3, 2020.
5 The Baghdad government allocated $300 million to redevelop the dam, about €273 million.
6 The name of the Italian mission was chosen in honor of the first glorious legion that, in the days of the Roman Empire, had gone far to the east until it came into contact with the Parthians, the historical inhabitants of these lands.