This week it was reported that the Mosul Dam, which holds back eleven billion cubic metres of the great River Tigris in northern Iraq, is crumbling. If the dam fails, the cities of Mosul and Baghdad would be inundated by a wall of water within hours, threatening to drown hundreds of thousands of people.

My fascination with water owes much to it’s hybrid nature, the fact that it is at once physical and social, that it both medium and outcome of social struggle. Water nourishes us, we are largely made of it, and we are vulnerable both to its absence and over-abundance. We can drown or desiccate. The promise or threat of water can therefore be used as a hegemonic weapon, with which to control and exert influence over others.

As someone interested in water and conflict, the Mosul Dam has been of particular interest to me since ISIL captured it in July 2014. The dam, and therefore the huge mass of physical water that sits latently behind it, is the product of one individual’s desire for prestige and power. One of Saddam Hussein’s vice presidents wanted to impress, and discarded the reservations of scientists over the nature of the bedrock in the area, meaning that the dam would require constant maintenance to avoid failure.

As long as the government was able to maintain the dam, however, the threat remained acceptable. Capital would suspend the waters above the home of millions. Yet with political instability – and state collapse – would come greater risk. As soon as Saddam’s regime fell, it is as though the water became heavier. When ISIL emerged out of the rubble of U.S. and U.K. foreign policy, it became heavier still. When the dam fell into the hands of those same militants it became a loaded gun. And when the they took away the equipment with which to maintain the dam before it was re-surrendered to the Kurdish peshmerga, the dam began literally to get weaker.

If the Mosul Dam collapses, the wall of water that heaves down the valley will be the embodiment of the will of a few powerful men who have sought control over the resources of the Middle East. It is their will that will inundate the homes, and the lungs of those who drown.

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