Iraq’s Hoover Dam That Never Was

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.

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In the distance some 50 kilometers away, the 3600 meter roof of Kurdistan and Iraq. Some five rows of towering mountains and deep valleys lay in between me and those distant peaks, evident in the layers of this photo.
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Looking at the town of Khalifan from a small village above. Korek Mountain, a popular Kurdish resort, sits on the mountain top in the far distance.

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.

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Approaching the mouth of the Bekhmal Gorge, rising abruptly from the rolling hills to the south.

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.

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The mouth of the Bekhmal Gorge. The mountains in the middle distance are the northern terminus of the gorge, and the mountain in the far distance, Bradost Peak, sits on the northern edge of the Sapna Valley near the Turkish border.

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.

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Looking through the amazing Bekhme Gorge, possibly Kurdistan’s most spectacular canyon

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.

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The Bekhmal Gorge. In the far distance the deep cliff side cuts of the dam’s outline are visible as well as some of the tunnels

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.

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The cuts on the mountainside climbed several hundred feet above me, and I was already several hundred feet above the river below.

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.

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Where the road ends and the tunnel begins

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.

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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.

 

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Exiting the tunnel onto a narrow cliff side road in the Sapna Valley

 


 

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.

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A satellite image of Kurdistan as it is now. Soran, Duhok and Mosul are shown for reference (the additional Erbil and Duhok are state names, as Erbil is just off the screen to the bottom-center
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Kurdistan as it would look had the Bekhme Dam been completed. The dam base sits at roughly 1300ft above sea level, and the crest would’ve been at about 2050 ft above sea level. At maximum capacity, the surface elevation would be at just over 2000 ft. The resulting reservoir would have been about 700 ft deep, inundating Rawanduz Canyon under roughly 400 feet of water, submerge more than two thirds of the Sapna Valley, and displace somewhere around 20-40,ooo people.

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.

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If the dam is ever finished, this would all be under 700 feet of water.

 

References:

  1.  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.
  2.  “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.
  3. Ameen, Bakhtiar, and Kamal H Karim. “Qamchuqa and Bekhme contact.” 2008. http://kurdistan-geology.com. 6 March 2016.
  4. 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.

 

 

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10 thoughts on “Iraq’s Hoover Dam That Never Was

  1. Fascinating research, Dawson. I’m glad it wasn’t completed, because the scenery is so beautiful! You could write a book.

    1. Merrie, I could write a book! A was there from the end of 1986. till we were ordered to live the site in 1990. The road tunnel was really a fascinating one! But could you imagine the main underground works with its 14- and 16-metre wide tunnels and underground halls as large as football fields, that my company did?

      1. Hey Petar,

        Thanks for the added info. I’ve had a lot of unanswered q’s about the dam project… I can’t believe someone who worked on the project found my post! How long were you out there? Where are you now?

  2. There were two main contractors for the project: the (then) Yugoslav company HIDROGRADNJA of Sarajevo, and Turkish ENKA. The Yugoslavs were doing all the huge underground works – that they almost completed, but the Turks have never completed the rock-fill dam – not to their fault. I was a mechanical engineer, working for the Yugoslav company, responsible for the operation and maintenance of the construction equipment and plants. Just about the road tunnel: It was designed for road traffic! But why it was left unpaved and unlined? (All the big tunnels – parts of the hydro-electric scheme – were lined!) During the construction period it was used also for 2-way traffic of 4-metre wide dump trucks. There were also a lot of (temporary!) water, air and electrical lines installed along its sides. Any lining would obviously reduce its width, making it impossible for the 2-way traffic of large vehicles! Of course, the road pavement and the concrete lining were included in the final design, making it the standard 7-metre wide road tunnel!

    1. Hello Dawson!
      Yes, but that was almost 30 years ago! Here are some ‘general’ informations about me and some specifics of the job: I was a ‘senior’ mechanical engineer, responsible – as my managers instructed me – for ‘everything that runs or rotates’ at the site! Actually, a sort of ‘technical assistant’ to the chief mechanical engineer, the big boss! It was an unusual arrangement for my company, but I was authorized to issue orders to all the other managers of various sectors ((the workshop, diesel-generator station (six Ruston diesels of 4,000 kVA each), tunneling equipment group, crushing and screening plant, concrete batching plant, mobile equipment, etc.)), as I was recognized as the best mechanical engineer in HIDROGRADNJA at the time. The project was really very big – our portion was a half of the total value of 1,7 billion US$ (of 1886!) – and important, the total value of our plants and equipment was almost 100 million US$. Earlier, during 1986. I was a part of the team in our head office in Sarajevo, negotiating with the suppliers of various sorts of equipment: Caterpillar, Atlas-Copco, Volvo, Liebherr, etc. Once the contracts were signed with them, at the end of 1986., I went to the site to check the delivery and other contractual obligations of the suppliers. The work was organized in three 8-hour shifts, 6 days a week, although we were doing some specific jobs even on Fridays. Altogether, there were about 2,300 of us – construction workers, drivers, operators, mechanics, cooks, etc. Beside the size and technical complexity of the job, there was also another very important factor of its success: the security arrangements! At that time there was a sort of active war between the Kurds and the Iraqi army! The whole area (the camp and the site) was encircled with a high barbed-wire fence and there were a hundred or so Iraqi soldiers protecting us. As I said, half of the project (the dam itself) was contracted to the Turkish company of ENKA. The authorities were much more concerned about the safety of Turkish people there – with the prolonged war between the Kurds and Turkey. The Kurds would kill any Turk that they had a chance to catch. We, the Yugoslavs, were really very popular with both the Arabs and Kurds – due to the non-aligned policy of Tito and Yugoslavia – and with our fair relations with the locals we felt safe! The access to the site was organized in two convoys daily – between the site and city of Erbil – with the armed escort of the Iraqi Army. Unscheduled stops were not allowed, any vehicle broken down was to be abandoned, passengers quickly transferred to other vehicles (there was always a spare capacity). During the night the Army withdrew to their bases (very similar to medieval fortresses!), they were afraid to travel even with their armoured personel carriers, and any abandoned vehicle was either taken by Kurds or burned down. Even our buses were equipped with non-standard heavy-duty drawbar couplings at their front and rear – the drivers were trained to quickly install a drawbar and an air line between a good vehicle and that broken down and – for example, in the event of engine failure – the convoy moved on within minutes. And then in 1990. Iraqi Army invaded Kuwait, the Army concentrated to the south and left the Kurdish area, and as the whole project was left without any protection, we were ordered to leave and go home with our personel belongings only. All the equipment was to be left at the site. We really (and naively!) had thought we might have been back within several months! We replaced oil and filters on the engines, put all the vehicles and machines into the tunnels, put them on wooden blocks (to relieve load from the tyres), and closed the tunnels with rocks for a 100 meters or so from each entrance. Later we learned that the Kurds had removed all the obstacles and were starting to destroy the equipment inside the tunnels! But it lasted just a couple of days: then the Iranians – who were helping Iraqi Kurds in their struggle against Iraqi authorities – bought nearly all the equipment from the Kurds! We were informed that for several years our trucks were working on some construction projects in Iran! (The equipment suppliers were receiving orders for spare parts from Iran – and they recognized the chassis numbers supplied as those belonging to the equipment sold to Hidrogradnja!) Then another disaster struck my company (and my country!): the war erupted in former Yugoslavia, especially in Bosnia at the beginning of 1992. But at the end of summer in 1991. my company sent me to another jobsite in Libya – instead of just one year, as planned, I stayed there for 4 years. With the Dayton Agreement bringing peace to Bosnia, I returned to Sarajevo, but then I learned that my company was heading fast to its bankcruptcy. Then the Crown Agents of UK opened a large workshop in Sarajevo – servicing and repairing vehicles belonging to SFOR troops (the US and British units were our best customers!), newly-openned embassies, humanitarian organizations, TV and press teams, etc. As the Aftersales Manager I stayed with the British for 5 years, when they left Bosnia. Then I joined Scania organization in Bosnia for another 5 years, and finally I spent some two and half years with Volvo Trucks in Sarajevo as well. Now I am a happily retired engineer, enjoying my memories. Yes Dawson, here is only a ‘small’ part of my story that I will never put in a book! Should you have any questions, just put them on! And not to forget to tell you: I spent about 6 years (1976-1982.) working on the Hemren Dam Project, some 130 km north-east from Baghdad and some 25 km from the Iraq-Iran border/frontline! And the war was going on there! Well, us coming from the then non-aligned country of Yugoslavia and having good relations with the nearly all countries of the ‘Third World’, the Iranian authorities had told our government they would never do any harm to us! But that is another story!

  3. Yes, I’m now enjoying a snowy- yet not so cold – winter in Sarajevo… and remembering the 1977. summer at Hemren Dam Project with the temperatures of up to +54 degC (in shade!). What a beautiful weather there…

      1. Yes, the country and the people are very nice, but our politicians… But, but, but!!! I was born in city of Osijek, north-eastern Croatia (region named Slavonia, near Hungarian border) – and my heart is still there! This is the (almost) flat region of the country, wide plains, no high mountains, wide streets, living in the center of the city, the wide Drava river with passenger and freight boats, etc. While I was a child – 60 years ago, my family moved to Sarajevo – with mountains that seemed like Himalayas to me, moving to a flat at an outskirt of the city, narrow streets, a narrow and shallow river (named Miljacka),… Thou I have no friends or relatives in Osijek now, almost every year I go there, to spend just a few hours walking around. When I went into retirement – 10 years ago, I thought I might be moving back to Osijek. Of course, I never did it – just sweet memories, nothing else!

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