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?

Haider-al-Abadi
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.

Source

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

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Squarely Facing the Past: Japan’s War Guilt and the Need for Regional Tolerance

In a lecture at the Hamarikyu Asahi Hall in Tokyo on Monday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel urged Japan to seek a peaceful resolution in redressing its poor relations with northeast Asian neighbours China and South Korea. At the centre of the cool ties is Japan’s perceived failure to properly atone for its aggression prior to, and during, WWII.

Squarely facing the past: Merkel at the Dachau concentration camp memorial in 2013
Squarely facing the past: Merkel at the Dachau concentration camp memorial in 2013

Merkel suggested that Germany could be used as a model for Japan having ‘squarely faced its past’ in a bid to regain credibility and prestige in western Europe. She was also quick to add, however, that the Germans were helped in their rehabilitation by the ‘tolerance’ of regional states, such as France, who suffered greatly at the hands of the Nazis.

The issue of ‘war guilt’ remains problematic in Japan. There is no doubt that the population has a strong pacifist bent, having experienced the most destructive forces in the history of warfare when the USA dropped its atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. However, its neighbours are quick to identify the failure by prominent politicians in Tokyo to fully accept responsibility for the war in the Pacific and the atrocities that occurred after its inception.

In recent years, Japanese Prime Ministers (including incumbent Shinzo Abe) have downplayed the use of ‘comfort women’ by Imperial Army soldiers, the horrific human experimentation carried out by the notorious Unit 731, and the militaristic motives of embroiling a continent in war. Its leaders have also made a habit of visiting the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, which houses the remains of several internationally-recognised war criminals.

Japan has in the past apologised for its use of comfort women during WWII. This has been undermined, however, by the denial of recent politicians  Source: NY Times
Japan has in the past apologised for its use of comfort women during WWII. This has been undermined, however, by the denial of recent politicians
Source: NY Times

Simultaneously, government departments and academics have pursued a revisionist line in history, perpetuated through school textbooks, which seems to deliberately underplay Japan’s wartime responsibilities. All these actions have understandably upset Japan’s neighbours – especially China and South Korea – whilst undermining Tokyo’s ambitions to become an active regional leader.

What must be acknowledged, however, is that Japan has made an official apology for the suffering that it caused during the Sino-Japanese War and WWII. In 1995, on the 50th anniversary of the war’s end, Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama released an official statement of apology that gained the unanimous approval of the cabinet. This remains the official position of the Japanese government.

Of course, inappropriate comments by politicians and questionable educational policy by the government do not suitably uphold Murayama’s apology. Yet it may be the case that this apparent reversal in stance with regard to Japan’s past actions has been driven by its neighbours’ refusal to show the tolerance Merkel admired in the French.

The Chinese, in particular, seize on any action or comment, however minor, as an example of Japan’s unrepentant stance towards its history. Any apology is not deemed to go far enough and almost any Japanese foreign policy move is interpreted as a sign that the country is regressing towards military nationalism. Whereas the Japanese have formed strong relations with the USA, another former adversary, they are barely on speaking terms with their major economic partners in northeast Asia. Indeed, were it not for this economic interdependence, the security situation in the region would be even more fragile.

Anti-Japanese protests are a fairly common occurrence in China, where they are happily tolerated by government officials
Anti-Japanese protests are a fairly common occurrence in China, where they are happily tolerated by government officials

Germany has risen to become the economic and diplomatic leader of Europe, playing a key role in all collective policy efforts. This despite a recent history comparable with Japan in which the Germans inflicted great misery on their neighbours, those very states with which they now enjoy sound relations.

Japan has the third-largest economy in the world and yet its diplomatic clout is puny in comparison. Rather than being able to wield a positive influence in northeast Asia, it is relegated to the position of bystander largely because of the reticence and mistrust of its neighbours.

It is unfair to expect the Japanese to have to reiterate their apologies over past atrocities or for them to have to feel a perpetual guilt due to the actions of their predecessors. Yes, crass comments by politicians are unhelpful, yet Japan’s neighbours are in danger of creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.

If Japan is continually seen as unapologetic over its past, and repeatedly made to look uncaring and arrogant on the world stage by Chinese and Korean protestations, more people (especially the youth) will follow an increasingly nationalist path. This, combined with political will, could lead to a revision of the Japanese constitution and the adoption of a far more assertive stance in the region, particularly over territorial issues. When this occurs, regional stability will be fatally undermined.

Angela Merkel was shrewd in her assessment. Squaring up to the past is critical in allowing a smooth progression into the future. Yet such self-reflection requires a reciprocal tolerance from regional states that accepts that the past is the past. At the moment, Japan’s neighbours are completely devoid of this admirable trait.