When I moved back to Kurdistan in early September of last year one of the first things I did was put a piece of paper on the wall of my flat with four of five place names listed; Akre, Amedi, Soran, Rawanduz.
Places I was aware of or had been to briefly, but did not know in detail. The list grew as I learned about more hidden gems; Gara, Alqosh, the Dereluk Pools and others.
One night when researching other lesser known “attractions” and corners of Kurdistan, I came across a report about something called the Bekhme Dam Project.
Unlike the better known Mosul Dam, a poorly completed project that has been internationally monitored ever since the Gulf War invasion of 1991, the Bekhme Dam was abandoned with only the initial stages of the project having begun.
My interest was piqued. The fact that few maps could pinpoint its exact location aside from generally stating and showing that it was within the Behkmal Gorge only made it more intriguing.
Northern Iraq is littered with examples of abandoned, failed, or poorly designed public works and civil engineering projects. Of the failed/abandoned/poorly designed paradigm, Mosul Dam is probably the most famous and an example of the last.
It is increasingly making international news, with initial design flaws and poor construction now presenting a both immediate and long-term threat.
The dam was built upon a foundation of limestone, a notoriously porous and weak rock prone to dissolution, responsible for things such as massive sink holes in Florida and the famous cenotes of the Yucatan peninsula in southeastern Mexico.
Bekhme Dam, however, is much different. A massive dam that was abandoned soon after beginning, and consequently poorly mapped to the public online domain.
A more ambitious project, and one that has seemed to disappear from local consciousness.
The dam was planned for a final height of a staggering 230 meters (over 750 feet tall), comparable to the Hoover Dam. A gargantuan undertaking in any sense.
A few weeks ago I took a long weekend in Erbil to visit friends. It was a fun weekend and one that I know I need to do more often.
My route back was one of the things I was most looking forward to, a series of winding roads that took me back to Duhok with an extra 100km of road and beautiful vistas.
It was a perfect route, taking me through many of the different landscapes of Kurdistan; dusty plains, rolling hills, snowy passes and sheer mountain faces.
About four hours into my ride I came upon the mouth of the Bekhmal Gorge. Rising suddenly from low rolling hills, the canyon is so daunting that a road has never been carved all the way through it unlike the Rawanduz Canyon, forty kilometers to the east and far better known than Bekhmal probably because it can be traversed much easier.
The Bekhmal Gorge is the product of the Zab River, the largest river within Iraqi Kurdistan, with a watershed extending well into southern Turkey and with many smaller tributaries such as the Rawanduz River.
At the mouth of the gorge stood a small Peshmerga checkpoint. I could tell by the soldiers’ cautious and puzzled expressions that few people ever came through. I was surprised that there was a checkpoint at all, as checkpoints only exist at points where there is thru-traffic.
They let me pass with minimal questioning and I rode into the canyon.
The cliff walls climbed immediately, and within a kilometer I was surrounded by 3,000ft vertical drops. The river below was powerful and the water a shockingly translucent light blue.
I got off my bike and just stood laughing for a moment. I couldn’t believe I’d found myself in what is probably the most beautiful canyon I’ve yet seen in Kurdistan, with not another soul around.
The road wound past narrow cliffs and within only a few kilometers I could see the other opening, where the cliff walls faded to the Sapna Valley.
At the far terminus of the vertical face I could see deep cuts and grooves carved into the mountain tracing a gargantuan triangle several hundred feet tall.
Having seen similar cuts in northern and southern California I knew immediately I was looking at what remained, or what was ever accomplished of the Bekhme Dam.
I hopped off again, on a narrow bluff overlooking the river. A small herd of goats were sharing the cliff with me, grazing on a small patch of grass. They didn’t mind my presence in the slightest. No one else was anywhere in sight or nearby, so I guessed they were wild.
Beyond, the deep triangular cuts rose high above me, with a series of tunnels drilled perpendicular to the rock face. I could see the road continued, climbing to the mountain face and coming to a dead end at the entrance of one such tunnel.
While I stood staring I heard a car’s rumble behind me on the road. From the direction it was coming it could only have come from the tunnel where the road ended. I walked over and only then realized the tunnel had been bored clear-through, with distant sunlight peeking from the far side.
The tunnel was well below the highest cuts of the dam’s outline, and at a pitch of maybe 6- 8%. It was obviously not designed for traffic of any kind, being completely unpaved, uneven and steep, but as a release once the dam was complete and near capacity.
The temptation was of course too much, so I rode through.
Light struggled to illuminate the tunnel, and water seeped from the walls and ceiling. The light from my bike cast moving shadows on the uneven walls of the tunnel.
Where water trickled down the walls the changing shadows seemed almost life like , and with no one else around it caused the unshakeable feeling that something was with me, or following me, through the tunnel.
When I reached the other side I was in the Sapna Valley, on a small dirt access road. I could see its connection to the narrow two-lane paved road a few kilometers and several hundred feet below me.
A truck with two sheep rolled past on the gravel road. The tunnel had become something of a locals-only shortcut since the dam had been abandoned, and the earlier checkpoint must have been in place to monitor the few people who used it.
When I returned to Duhok I did some more much-needed research. Although the project was overly ambitious, there had to be very specific reasons as to why the dam was abandoned.
The obvious reason seemed to be the displacement of the local populace. And as I hoped, that the process of inundating one of the most beautiful (albeit generally unknown) valleys of Kurdistan was enough to dissuade the dam’s completion.
Another possible reason seemed to be that the dam and resulting reservoir would have forever erased several important archaeological sites.
Much of the historical heritage of the region is already at great risk, and the prospect of purposefully destroying several more sites might have been a reasonable point of opposition to the dam’s completion.
A little bit of research brought out many more, often muddled answers.
The dam was initially planned in the 1950’s but not begun until the late 1970’s when it was postponed shortly after due to the onset of the Iran-Iraq war.
The project was then renewed in the late 1980’s only to be postponed again and essentially abandoned only 2 years later with the Gulf War and Kurdish Uprising (1).
In the last decade the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) has expressed interest in renewing the project once more, and small progress has been made.
However, the Bekhme Dam is still meeting a fair number of hurdles.
Baghdad has refused to support the project after a widespread regional drought in 2008. The Zab is the largest single tributary to the Tigris, and heavily regulating it’s flow and release in the far north of Iraq would greatly restrict downstream water access to the roughly 30million people that live in the Tigris-Euphrates flood plain south of the dam (2).
There are geologic concerns as well, with the dam lying above a possible dormant fault. If true, it could require significant more research as to the potential of a resultant earthquake and its effect on a completed dam.
A minor earthquake would certainly be plausible after, or if the dam were completed, as such occurrences have happened in previous situations where bedrock sometimes shifts due to the change in stress levels caused by a reservoir’s presence (3).
In addition, the historical heritage angle is true as well. The Sapna Valley was preliminarily mapped over half a century ago for archaeological sites, but has never been thoroughly studied due to regional volatility. In known threat are the ancient village of Zawi Chemi Shanidar, dated to the 11th century BCE with evidence of inhabitants as recently as about 500 CE, in addition to Shanidar Cave, a Stone Age site, as well as numerous ancient monasteries and synagogues (4).
As a result, a dam that has been twice postponed and once abandoned now seems destined to remain in continual project purgatory. The current economic state of the KRG would make it seem highly unlikely that the project is rebooted anytime soon.
So many other current issues far outstrip the dam’s priority, and what will realistically be a mammoth price tag will continue to act as a deterrent for a government very short on cash.
Unless any dramatic changes happen in the near future, the project will remain only a skeletal foundation, some deep bore holes, an eerie local shortcut through a weeping mountain, and a mostly unknown attraction, much like Kurdistan itself.
- Kehreman, Berevan. “Envirozan Report 1: Bekhme Dam.” 2006. https://web.archive.org/web/20110721200314/http://www.envirozan.info/EZ_Docs/Dams/Bexme_Dam_Report.pdf. 9 March 2016.
- “Shared Tributaries of the Tigris River.” UN-ESCWA and BGR (United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia; Bundesanstalt für
Geowissenschaften und Rohstoffe). 2013. Inventory of Shared Water Resources in Western Asia. Beirut. http://waterinventory.org. 14 March 2016.
- Ameen, Bakhtiar, and Kamal H Karim. “Qamchuqa and Bekhme contact.” 2008. http://kurdistan-geology.com. 6 March 2016.
Solecki, Ralph S. “The Bekhme dam project in Kurdistan Iraq: a threat to the archaeology of the upper Zagros river valley.” 2005. https://www.highbeam.com/doc/1G1-135732901.html. 15 March 2016.