Mosul Dam on the Verge of Collapse: Echoes of the Yellow River Disaster of 1938

Fears persist that springtime snow melt will lead to an uncontrollable rise in water pressure that will finally cause the collapse of Iraq’s Mosul Dam, potentially devastating vast swathes of the country and killing and displacing millions of people.

Italian engineers have been hired to repair the Mosul Dam. But has the Iraqi government left it too late?
Italian engineers have been hired to repair the Mosul Dam. But has the Iraqi government left it too late?

The warning bells have been ringing ever since the dam’s construction in 1984, when it was known as the mouth-twisting Saddam Dam. Built on unsuitable geology to line the pockets of one of Saddam’s cronies, the dam has required nightly infusions of concrete to keep it stable over its three-decade existence. This process was halted, however, after its capture by the Islamic State in 2014. Whilst it has since been recaptured, the structural integrity of the dam has been severely compromised and some analysts fear that a collapse is imminent.

Of course the US in particular has been at pains to point out to the Iraqi government the weakness of the dam and the potential consequences of its failure. The government in Baghdad, however, has over the past couple of years downplayed the potentially disastrous situation and continued to insist that people living in its shadow have nothing to worry about.

Whether this is wishful ignorance, naivety or something more sinister is unclear. Could it be that the Iraqi government actually sees the flooding of a large portion of its country as a final defence against the Islamic State? Does it believe that it can control a bursting of the dam and add the force of nature to its weaponry?

PM Haider al-Abadi has called the potential Mosul Dam collapse ‘highly unlikely’ and told his citizens that ‘all necessary measures’ will be taken to prevent such a disaster. Yet he has failed to act with conviction

It seems preposterous that Baghdad would allow millions of its people to perish underwater. However, desperate times call for desperate measures and there are precedents. One in particular is worth noting.

During the Second Sino-Japanese War, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek made the fateful decision in June 1938 to destroy the dykes and dams on the Yellow River in Central China. The reason? To prevent the inexorable advance of the Imperial Japanese Army towards the Nationalist government’s then capital of Wuhan.

Hard facts are difficult to obtain but estimates place the death toll from the subsequent flooding in the central Chinese provinces of Anhui, Henan and Jiangsu at 500,000, with at least a further 3 million peasants made refugees.

Refugees of the Yellow River flood of 1938
Refugees of the Yellow River flood of 1938

Chiang was fully aware of the deadly consequences of his order and the fact that Wuhan was surrendered to the Japanese in October 1938 shows how fruitless his diabolical efforts were. Not only did the plan fail to halt the Japanese tide, but it exacerbated an already fraught refugee crisis, with the new Nationalist capital at Chongqing unable to cope with the influx of desperate, starving people.

The Nationalist control over the dispersion of information, coupled with the chaos of war, helped shield Chiang from the blame for the horrendous flooding. His potential allies in the West, however, became fully aware of his complicity in the devastation and may have contributed to the distrust shown towards him by the US and British throughout WWII.

Were the Iraqi government to allow the failure of the Mosul Dam, there would be no hiding place and the blame would be levelled squarely at Baghdad’s front door.

Sacrifice is a necessity in times of warfare and it is reasonable for a government to ask its citizens to make concessions to their daily lives when faced with an existential threat. This is not sympathetic with a government sacrificing its own people to bolster its hopes of survival.

Chiang Kai-shek’s legitimacy declined during the Sino-Japanese War. The Nationalists and their allies may have prevented a total Japanese occupation but that was more to do with the overstretch of the Tokyo regime than an effective strategy of defence and counter-insurgency.

Chiang at the Cairo Conference in 1943 with Roosevelt and Churchill. Both the American and British leader would develop unfavourable opinions about the Generalissimo
Chiang at the Cairo Conference in 1943 with Roosevelt and Churchill. Both the American and British leader would develop unfavourable opinions about the Generalissimo

Furthermore, the corruption and brutality of Chiang’s regime (who it must be said bore the brunt of the fighting) was contrasted unfavourably with the Communist stronghold in Yan’an, where land reform and distribution of resources pointed to a regime of benevolence. The Communists would take control of China in 1949, of course, and this myth was quickly put to bed.

The Mosul Dam should never have been built where it was but it is now imperative that it is reinforced and re-engineered to ensure its survival. That survival may go hand-in-hand with that of the Iraqi government, whose own legitimacy and capacity to control its outlying provinces will be irreparably damaged by any foolhardy decisions to harness nature’s power to destroy an enemy that can only be obliterated through a willing coalition ready to make their own personal sacrifices.


Mitter, R. China’s War with Japan 1937-1945: the Struggle for Survival (2013)

Xi and Ma in Historic Summit: Status Quo on Taiwan Persists…for Now

Last Saturday saw an unprecedented meeting between the respective leaders of the People’s Republic of China (PRC – Mainland China) and the Republic of China (ROC- Taiwan). Presidents Xi Jinping of the PRC and Ma Ying-jeou of the ROC shook hands and smiled for the cameras before their brief summit in Singapore, an historic but largely symbolic dialogue.

An historic handshake

Since the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) won the Civil War in 1949 and forced Chiang Kai-shek and his Kuomintang (KMT) comrades to flee to Taiwan, there has existed a very tense cross-Strait relationship between Beijing and Taipei whose rulers both claim their governments to be the true and sole representatives of all China.

Three serious ‘crises’ have broken out between the mainland and Taiwan since 1949. The first crisis occurred during 1954-5 when the PRC seized several islands from the ROC and conducted heavy shelling of KMT defensive positions. The US administration was so concerned by the aggression of the communists that the Joint Chiefs of Staff recommended dropping a nuclear bomb on the Chinese mainland, a suggestion fortunately dismissed by President Eisenhower.

In 1958, the PRC again resorted to heavy shelling of KMT positions on several disputed islands in the Tawain Strait. The ROC responded with their own artillery with the end result being 2,500 dead on the Taiwanese side, compared with 200 PRC troops killed. America intervened on the side of the ROC by providing them with howitzers and air-to-air missiles, honouring an agreement of mutual defence that had been signed after the first crisis four years earlier. The Soviets, too, put diplomatic pressure on Mao Zedong to halt his assault, fearing the American response should the conflict intensify.

Beijing did not react well to US involvement in the 2nd Taiwan Strait Crisis
Beijing did not react well to US involvement in the 2nd Taiwan Strait Crisis

For the next four decades an uneasy peace existed across the Taiwan Strait, with both the PRC and ROC largely concerned with ensuring domestic stability and (after Mao’s death at least) economic development. In 1992, a Consensus was reached between Beijing and Taipei that unequivocally stated that there was only one sovereign state encompassing all of China, the disagreement remaining over which government was the legitimate ruler.

This seemed set to cement the peace but its impact was almost immediately undermined. In 1995-6, trouble flared up again as the PRC embarked on a series of provocative missile tests in the coastal waters off Taiwan. A response to Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui’s supposed agitation for independence – which of course went against the 1992 Consensus – Beijing’s actions prompted the Clinton administration to send two aircraft carrier groups into the Taiwan Strait, the biggest American military deployment in Asia since the Vietnam War. The PRC responded by undertaking live firing training drills in the build-up to Taiwan’s 1996 presidential election. The attempts to intimidate Taipei and the Taiwanese electorate failed, however, with Lee’s popularity receiving a boost in the aftermath of the scare.

Since 1996 the relationship has remained relatively stable, improving significantly during Ma’s tenure, with a renewed focus on economic engagement. This has led many Taiwanese to become increasingly wary about Ma’s intentions and his decision to meet with Xi in Singapore met with widespread disapproval back home. With only a few months remaining in office and no possibility of a further term given constitutional constraints, Ma’s gesture appears one of egotism designed to secure his place in history. For many Taiwanese, however, his diplomacy has simply led to a strengthening of the PRC’s hand and given the impression that Taipei’s resolve to oppose pressure from Beijing is failing.

Protesters took to streets across Taiwan in opposition to Ma's China diplomacy
Protesters took to streets across Taiwan in opposition to Ma’s China diplomacy

There was never any likelihood that the Xi-Ma summit would lead to significant policy change. In this respect, it is similar to the meeting that took place between Mao and Chiang Kai-shek at Chongqing in 1945. With the Japanese enemy defeated and World War Two ended, the US hoped that they could broker a peace deal between Mao’s communists and the Nationalist KMT government, which had been sporadically fighting a civil war for the best part of two decades.

The Double Tenth Agreement that arose from the three-month negotiations included the CCP concession that the KMT was the legitimate government of China and a declaration by the Nationalists that they recognised Mao’s group as an official opposition party.

Mao and Chiang raise a toast at their August 1945 meeting in Chongqing
Mao and Chiang raise a toast at their August 1945 meeting in Chongqing

Of course in reality neither party had any intention of stopping short of outright victory and the internal conflict would rage brutally for a further four years before Chiang eventually realised that his days were numbered and he escaped across the Strait where he would rule until his death in 1975.

There will come a time when the historical enmity between the PRC and ROC will explode again and it is likely to involve America when it does. At the moment the relationship is as strong as it is ever going to be, Ma’s efforts over the course of his presidency ensuring temporary peace even if it is at the expense of his people’s honour.

Make no mistake, though. The PRC views Taiwan as part of its territory and will ultimately be prepared to use force to secure this economically-vibrant island. When its leaders choose their moment, America will have a choice whether to enforce its traditional commitment to Taiwanese territorial integrity or allow a scenario similar to the one that resulted in Russia annexing Crimea from Ukraine last year.

Xi and Ma posed for the cameras, as Mao and Chiang did back in 1945. As with their predecessors, today’s leaders know that the status quo will not last forever.