A dam with a view? (photo: Wikimedia Commons / Ahmed Albarazanchi)
It would have been the largest dam in Iraq when the project was first proposed. But over 60 years have passed since the Bekhme dam was planned and in that time, the project has seen various political regimes come and go as well as war and peace.
It would have been a major undertaking, with a final height of around 230 meters, and offered extra water supplies to the people of Iraqi Kurdistan. Recent events, where Turkey cut off the flow of the Euphrates river and levels dropped noticeably, and Iran cut off water from the Little Zab, mean that a dam like this one is more necessary than ever. But, after all this time, will it ever happen?
The Bekhme dam was first on the Iraqi government’s agenda in 1937 and a US company developed a design for the dam in 1953; that is, during Iraq’s monarchy. In 1979, a Japanese firm adapted the original designs and in 1986, two more companies, one from Turkey and the other from the former Yugoslavia, began work on that plan. Work continued until 1991, and around a third of the required work had been done, when the whole thing came to a grinding halt, due to the second Gulf war. This is when the Iraqi government headed by Saddam Hussein withdrew from the northern area, leaving the Kurds to govern themselves.
If we continue at this pace, we are going to face serious water shortages soon.
Should the giant dam have been completed, the authorities in the semi-autonomous northern region of Iraqi Kurdistan say that it would have held between 14 and 17 billion cubic meters of water, at a depth of 179 meters. It would have helped irrigate more than 560 hectares of agricultural land and produced electricity too.
“The three dams – Dokan, Darbandikhan and Dohuk – collect seven to eight billion cubic meters of water but the whole region needs 10 billion,” explains Akram Mohammed, the head of the regional department for dams in Iraqi Kurdistan. “There is a plan to build 250 more small and medium-sized dams but only 14 have been completed so far. If we continue at this pace, we are going to face serious water shortages soon.”
The Bekhme dam project was suspended in 1991. But it was not just a political problem, due to the Iraqi government pulling out of Kurdish areas. Over time, the machinery and materials used for the dam-building “disappeared”. Locals say the goods were smuggled across the border into Iran and never returned.
After Iraqi Kurdistan’s second-ever parliament was formed, and governed between 2005 and 2009, local politicians did try to revive the project. They were unsuccessful but up until today, the MPs involved can’t explain exactly why.
Jamil Mohammed was a member of the committee that debated the subject at the time but he told NIQASH that “we did not come to any conclusions”. He couldn’t give any further information, he said.
Several problems with the Bekhme dam project have been flagged, including geographical ones, downstream issues and the destruction of Iraqi heritage, once the area has been flooded.
“The Bekhme dam issue was only discussed once during that administration,” says Abdulrahman Ali, who is on the agriculture and irrigation committee in the Kurdish parliament and a senior member of the opposition Change movement. “I followed up on this issue personally but the response was that this was a political issue. That’s why it remains unresolved up until now.”
A tunnel that is part of the unfinished dam.
The nature of those problems is a little more difficult to trace back. Money was not the issue apparently. In 2005, as the Iraqi Kurdish authorities resumed contact with the Iraqi government, Baghdad promised to put US$5 billion into the dam’s completion.
“During the al-Maliki government, we followed up on the amount of money for the project and we note that the Iraqi ministry of water resources did discuss the issue with authorities from the Kurdish region,” says Mahmoud Raza, an MP in Baghdad. “The plan for the dam changed several times. But the Kurdish authorities wouldn’t agree to it being built.”
Apparently the problem was the level of water in the dam and its size. There was concern about how much water the dam would collect and whether this would block the flow of water into the rest of Iraq.
Alternative plans were suggested by the Kurdish authorities but these were not viable, Zafer Abdullah, an adviser to Iraq's ministry of water resources, told NIQASH. “Other plans involved reducing the water level in the dam and the size of the reservoir,” he said. “At that time, the Kurdish presidency was against the dam being constructed and some said there were political reasons behind this.”
At the start nobody had any problem with the dam being built. But later on the issue was politicized - when it was suggested that the Barzan area be submerged.
“It was the Kurdish leadership who would not accept the construction of the dam, despite the fact that the Iraqi government gave them three alternative designs for the project,” Mohammed, head of the regional department for dams in Iraqi Kurdistan, confirms.
Over the course of two weeks researching this story, NIQASH tried to contact the Kurdish government’s spokesperson, Safeen Dizayee, several times to ask why but had no response.
A large part of the “political” reason behind the lack of progress on the Bekhme dam also has to do with the fact that around 54 villages in the area would be submerged, says Karwan Karim Khan, mayor of Khalifan, where the Bekhme dam would be located.
Some of these villages are located in the Barzan area, the historic home to the Barzani tribe, from which one of Iraqi Kurdistan’s ruling families originates. The Barzanis head one of Iraqi Kurdistan’s most popular political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP, and until he stepped down recently, Massoud Barzani was president of Iraqi Kurdistan.
At one stage a petition was launched, collecting signatures of those opposed to the destruction of these villages due to the dam, and Kurdish authorities used this to justify the ongoing suspension of the project.
“We signed the petition because the Bekhme dam could cause many problems – one of which is that we would be forced to leave our homes,” says Hasso Mohammed Amin, a 52-year-old resident of one of the villages that could end up submerged, Dola Teshwu. “ We wanted the project suspended or its size reduced,” he notes.
“At the start nobody had any problem with the dam being built,” Abbas Ghazali Mirkhan, an MP with the KDP and also a resident from the area where the dam is meant to be being built, told NIQASH. “But later on the issue was politicized - when it was suggested that the Barzan area be submerged and the Barzan villagers be displaced.”
“When the budget was first allocated for the dam project in 2005 and the plan designed by foreign advisers, Massoud Barzani had no problem with it,” Mirkhan continued. “But when it turned out there were political motivations behind the project, Barzani and the local population collected signatures for a petition against it and the project was suspended.”
And by this, he means that the Barzanis clearly felt that the dam was a personal attack on their heritage, possibly a politically motivated one by Baghdad.
Whatever the reason back then, work on the Bekhme dam seems unlikely to resume any time soon, no matter how much its needed. The Iraqi government has basically given up on it now, insiders say.
“There’s no hope in reviving those talks with the Kurdish authorities about the Bekhme dam,” Abdullah, the ministry of water resources adviser, concludes. “We are now relying on the Tharthar dam [further south] to secure our water supply.”