30 October 2007

Iraq's Water Crisis, Part 2: Mosul Dam

Primary Sources:
5 May 2003: Engineering News-Record
Iraqi Dam Has Experts On Edge Until Inspection Eases Fears
9 September 2005: US Army Corps of Engineers, Gulf Region Division
Mosul Dam Repairs Benefit Tigris Basins
11 September 2005: PortAl Iraq
Mosul Dam repairs progress with safety, electricity, irrigation for Tigris Basins
September 2007: US Army Corps of Engineers, Engineer Research and Development Center
Geologic Conceptual Model of Mosul Dam (pdf)
September 2007: US Army Corps of Engineers, Engineer Research and Development Center
Geologic Setting of Mosul Dam and its Engineering Implications (pdf)
30 October 2007: US Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction
October 2007 Report to Congress
30 October 2007: Bloomberg.com
Project to Reinforce Iraq's Largest Dam Mismanaged, Audit Says
30 October 2007: New York Times
Lack of Security Limits Iraq's Recovery
30 October 2007: Washington Post
Iraqi Dam Seen In Danger of Deadly Collapse
You may need Acrobat Reader for some of the links above. Additional sources include Wikipedia and specific links provided below.

The largest dam in Iraq was completed in 1983, under Saddam Hussein's regime and thus named the "Saddam Dam" until 2003, about 50 km upstream of Mosul on the Tigris River. The dam is primarily an earth embankment, with concrete reinforcement, 131 m tall and approximately 3.5 km wide at the base. Now named the Mosul Dam, the structure impounds approximately 12B cubic meters of water, provides irrigation and drinking water to the surrounding region and downstream through Baghdad, and generates more than 300MW in electricity for the region.

But it seems the dam is in danger of catastrophic failure. More than 500,000 residents downstream, in Mosul and Baghdad and numerous smaller cities and villages, are in danger of a drowning flood wave. Of course, after the flood wave passes, the survivors in the service area (more than 1.7M in Mosul, and innumerably more downstream through Baghdad) will be without electricity and clean water for some time. It is both an infrastructure and humanitarian emergency in the making.

It turns out that we've known this for at least a couple of years. The Mosul Dam was built on top of a gypsum formation. According to MinDat.org, gypsum is a "marine evaporite" sedimentary mineral, flexible but inelastic and brittle. What do these mean? It collapses under stress, and it dissolves in water. Apparently, the dam started showing signs of leakage as soon as it was built, and engineers have been injecting grout (a mixture of concrete and gravel, with cement to hold it all together) into the foundation of the dam ever since. New sinkholes appear frequently, and at one point the dam engineers had 24 pumps working 24 hours a day to inject that grout. In the meantime, larger stabilization efforts at the site are either suspect or incomplete. A recent audit of post-war reconstruction expenditures in Iraq says that the $27M US-led effort to reinforce the dam has been "mismanaged" and, in the process, exposed the extent of the danger to the dam's structural integrity.

Needless to say, the original engineering reports on site selection are unavailable. An examination of the geologic formations underlying the dam, and some of its safety implications, was originally published in 1991 and reprinted in the text of Water Resources Engineering in Karst by P.T. Milanović in 2004 (available on Google Books). Extensive mineral dissolution and water leakage, also known as "karstification," beneath the dam was observed during the initial filling period (1983-1986), and the recommendation in that text was that "grouting maintenance should be systematically and continuously applied" throughout the life of the dam. A recent report by the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) indicated that "grouting at one location causes the flow path (seepage) of subsurface water to move to another location, but does not stop the seepage." The report also indicated that "the rate of subsurface dissolution increases markedly" at a reservoir depth that is 12 meters below the overall dam height, leading to a recommendation that the reservoir remain limited to this depth and, effectively, eliminating some of the design capacity and margin of safety, especially in flood control operations, for the site.

When coalition forces first invaded Iraq in early 2003, there was a great deal of concern over the safety of dams on the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. It was believed that Saddam Dam, on the Tigris River, and Haditha Dam on the Euphrates River had been fitted with explosives to be detonated by retreating Iraqi forces. The Haditha Dam was captured US Army Rangers and came under coalition control early in the invasion. Mosul Dam, as it was renamed by the locals, was not captured in the initial invasion, but rather inspected later by the USACE. In April of 2003, during the conflict, the site was found to be free of explosive devices. Moreover, it was found that the dam was already under protective control: more than 500 laborers and engineers were still hard at work at the site, a month after the government had stopped paying them, under guard by Kurdish militia. It makes me wonder if that protective move was in the invasion plans for our cooperation with the Kurds all along, or whether it was a unilateral decision on their part as a matter of Kurdish, and larger Iraqi, security.

So instead of malicious intent, the Mosul Dam and many Iraqis remain in danger due to poor engineering and management, both in the Saddam era and now, as the safety and viability of the dam is addressed by the USACE. One of their proposals has been to build another dam downstream, to catch the flood wave if and when the Mosul fails. Though such a plan should be feasible as an intentional and eventual replacement for the Mosul Dam, planning for an incidental replacement is dubious: it is a risky proposition to "catch" a 110-meter flood wave crest, as the engineering reports suggest could occur. It is also not at all a short-term solution: in order to avoid the same mistakes made in the original site selection, extensive geological testing and exploratory engineering for a new site will take a long time, and only then would the actual construction of a new dam begin. On the positive side, there is a partially-completed dam at Badush, on the Tigris River between Mosul Dam and the city of Mosul, that has been recommended by the USACE to the Iraqis for completion. However, much uncertainty surrounds both the "stabilization" of Mosul Dam and the construction of new facilities, either at Badush or another location, for lack of planning and funding. That uncertainty comes primarily from finger-pointing between the US and the Iraqi parliament.

Should the politics of the US-led occupation of, and eventual withdrawal from, Iraq take precedence over the safety and security of the country's infrastructure and natural resources? Of course not. One would think that an increase, even a doubling, from the $27M already allocated to the Mosul site stabilization would be but a drop in the bucket (no pun intended) of large-scale post-conflict reconstruction efforts in Iraq. But many Iraqis, especially outside of Kurdistan, remain without consistent supplies of water, food and electricity, and it's not necessarily because of the new Iraqi government's planning efforts.

24 October 2007

Global Warming and Climate Change,
Part 1: The Nobel Peace Prize?

Primary sources:
12 October 2007: Reuters
Gore, U.N. climate panel win Nobel Peace Prize
12 October 2007: The Guardian (UK)
An inconvenient peace prize
19 October 2007: ScrippsNews
U.S. must establish a new global narrative
Additional sources include Wikipedia and specific links provided below.

Who or what really won the Nobel Peace Prize this year? The environment did, and the IPCC and Mr. Gore were just its agents of representation. What these efforts really have to do with the promotion of national and international peace are, as yet, unclear to me. However, I do intend to address some of the aspects of conflict and international security on this blog in the near future. Some of those implications and anticipated impacts are very clear already...

Discussions and news items on the environment and global climate change (a.k.a. "global warming") have not likely been more in vogue as now, after the Nobel Committee's awards. Bjorn Lomborg, author of The Skeptical Environmentalist a few years ago and the focused follow-up Cool It earlier this year, wrote a reaction (listed above) that effectively and properly splits the awardees. In that, he said:
"This year's Nobel peace prize justly rewards the thousands of scientists of the United Nations climate change panel (the IPCC). These scientists are engaged in excellent, painstaking work that establishes exactly what the world should expect from climate change. The other award winner, former US vice-president Al Gore, has spent much more time telling us what to fear. While the IPCC's estimates and conclusions are grounded in careful study, Gore doesn't seem to be similarly restrained."
For those of you who have not yet read Cool It, the premise of that short treatise on the climate change issue is essentially as written by Lomborg in his reaction editorial: "The IPCC has magnanimously declared that it would have been happy if Gore had received the Nobel peace prize alone. I am glad that he did not. Unfortunately, Gore's prize will only intensify our focus on climate change to the detriment of other planetary challenges." To explain further, Mr. Lomborg wrote:
"While we worry about the far-off effects of climate change, we do nothing to deal with issues facing the planet today. This year, malnutrition will kill almost 4 million people. Three million lives will be lost to HIV/Aids. Two and a half million people will die because of indoor and outdoor air pollution. A lack of micronutrients and clean drinking water will claim two million lives each. With attention and money in scarce supply, we should first tackle the problems with the best solutions, thereby doing the most good throughout the century. Focusing on solving today's problems will leave communities strengthened, economies more vibrant, and infrastructures more robust. This will enable us to deal much better with future problems - including global warming - whereas committing to massive cuts in carbon emissions will leave future generations poorer and less able to adapt to challenges."
Mr. Barnett wrote a column recently (also listed above) which he declared an "attempt to contextualize this year's Nobel Peace Prize." In a brief commentary on his weblog, he explained further:
"After finishing Bjorn Lomborg's Cool It!, I have to pull back on my commendation of Gore's (and the IPCC's) Nobel for Peace...Again, I say on global warmimg: read Lomborg or remain cowed by the fear mongers. There is a reasonable debate on courses of action to be had. We simply haven't had that debate yet, and this Nobel award will not help that debate...Do yourself a favor and read this book."
I wrote a comment to Mr. Barnett's weblog that contained the following:
"...I think the Nobel Academy conflated the issue by awarding both Mr. Gore and the IPCC and not explaining why--that is left for the community to realize on their own, apparently.

"I certainly second the recommendation of Cool It by Bjorn Lomborg as essential reading for anyone with interest in the climate debate. If I recall correctly Mr. Barnett's comment to me during a couple of posts on the topic a short while ago, it is 'intellectually devastating' on the Kyoto Agreement. Lomborg also criticizes Mr. Gore's alarmist tendencies and use of hyperbole, while relying heavily on the IPCC reports and the Copenhagen Consensus for the facts of the issue. Lomborg's narrative essentially demonstrates how Gore raised the issue of climate change so long ago in public discourse, though polarized the issue in doing so, and was then followed by the IPCC with more moderate predictions (which are, indeed, peer reviewed ad infinitum) which bring some reality to the debate. The interplay of these two deserves a prize, Nobel or otherwise, but neither one would stand on its own as a Nobel recipient: The IPCC members are just doing their jobs as scientists, while Mr. Gore's alarmist rhetoric has brought peace to no one. I believe that it's the dialogue pushed forward by these two parties that earned their award, and not the actions or efforts of either in particular."
In summary, I agree with both Mr. Lomborg and Mr. Barnett that other, more immediate issues warrant greater attention and funding. The results of the 2004 Copenhagen Consensus outline these:

However, I also extend proper congratulations to Mr. Gore and the IPCC for their award. Their interactions, and presentations to the public, have advanced the debate on global climate change well beyond the US government's own effort, or that of any other national government for that matter.

22 October 2007

Guest post: "Loss of Knowledge" by Dr. A. Askew, IAHS President

This report is reprinted with permission of the original author from the September 2007 issue of the IAHS Newsletter. It relates to the Workshop on the Loss of Knowledge that was convened by IAHS and WMO as a part of the XXIV General Assembly of the International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics held in Perugia, Italy, on 13 July 2007.

Editor's Note: I selected, and asked specifically for permission to reprint in its entirety, this report by Dr. Askew because I felt that it represented a commonality with much of the rest of the scientific and government community, or as near to a proper expression of that as could be conveyed to the public on these issues. We are currently seeing the retirement of elders and a coming shift to significantly younger leaders. It is important that we figure out a way to carry on the best of what has been learned by the previous and current leaders in science, as well as ways to interact more efficiently with other fields. Dr. Askew's commentary on this particular workshop at Perugia conveys those needs in a manner appropriate to the outward- and forward-looking scientist from the fields of hydrology and water resources. In the U.S., it's happening in politics, government, diplomacy, military affairs, and much of science: the Baby Boomer generation is reaching retirement age, and Generation X is stepping up.


Loss of Knowledge
by Dr. Arthur Askew, IAHS President

2007 IAHS Scientific Assembly
Workshop HW 3009


This Workshop was organized as a co-operative venture between IAHS and WMO and was planned very much as a workshop in the sense that comparatively few papers were accepted, each author being given 30 minutes for presentation, and the last third of the session was devoted to a general discussion with the aim of summarizing the problems reported and seeking for solutions.

The last day, and particularly the last afternoon of an Assembly, is not the most auspicious time for a meeting. We were therefore pleased that 20 to 30 participants attended and that two or three leading members of the hydrological community joined us for the discussions, even though they did not present papers themselves. One, perhaps erroneous, conclusion is that it is good to convene sessions on the 13th of the month if they fall on a Friday.

The seven papers presented reported on a wide range of causes for the loss of hydrological knowledge. The authors came from six countries and four continents. Their presentations helped to stimulate the lively debate that brought to light the following facts:
  • Stations are closed because of a lack of funding or simply a lack of fuel for transport.
  • Even when the problems faced because of a lack of data are clearly recognized, those who hold the purse strings still cut funding for data collection, storage and interpretation.
  • A lack of accurate data has often led to legally binding agreements being made, e.g. for sharing a water resource, which are impossible to implement.
  • Politicians have little interest in the matter because benefits from the collection of data only accrue after many years, i.e. well beyond the next parliamentary elections.
  • Data collected at regional and national level are not interpreted for use at local/village level.
  • Past records are lost because they are on paper and rot or are eaten by rats – or even used as wrapping paper in the local market – one reason being that those in charge of their storage are not trained and do not appreciate the value of what they are storing.
  • On the other hand, computers and CDs may be stolen or destroyed in time of war, whereas paper records may go untouched because they have no street value.
  • New methods of collecting information on freshwater resources, in particular those based on remote sensing, can appear so attractive to those who do not have a sound understanding of the subject that old traditional methods are abandoned in favour of the new, without consideration of the errors and uncertainty thereby being introduced.
  • In developed countries, technical education is being scaled down in favour of degree courses and so few, if any, young people are being trained as hydrological technicians.
  • In some developing countries, more children now go to school but they then leave the village to work in the neighbouring town and fathers and mothers no longer have the opportunity to pass on to their sons and daughters the old wisdom of the ages.
  • Many Hydrological Services have neither the resources to train staff nor the salaries that would retain them once trained.
The major conclusion was that the basic cause of the loss of knowledge is a lack of appreciation by those in higher authority, above all within the relevant Ministries, of the importance of maintaining long-term programmes for the collection of hydrological data and information and for their safe storage. Consideration of the present situation led to the following comments:
  • Efforts must continue to change government policy, possibly by convincing politicians that their projects will fail if the design data are inadequate.
  • For this purpose, it is important to identify what design and operational data are needed for each facet of the project, including hydrological, technical, social and economic data.
  • From this, an assessment can be made of the uncertainty and likely operational risks resulting from the data shortage.
  • This can lead to evaluation of additional project costs that need to be incurred to overcome the data shortage.
Proposals for action, some old and some new, were put forward including:
  • A set percentage of the cost of any water project could be given to the Hydrological Service which supplies the information used to design the project. This would not immediately provide the data required by the project in question but, over the years, it would ensure that the Service concerned was well enough funded to provide the data and information required for all future projects.
  • Volunteer gauge readers should be given the public recognition that they deserve for their vital role in assessing and monitoring freshwater bodies.
  • There should be greater interaction between Hydrological Services and the users of hydrological data and information because it is the users who benefit from this information
  • Water supply authorities, hydropower companies and other organizations which sell water-related services could be obliged to pay for the collection of data and information that are needed to support their activities.
  • An effort might be made to synthesize the material that is available on estimating the value of hydrological data and information. This synthesis could then be made available to Hydrological Services as an aid to their efforts to increase national funding for such work.
The results of IAHS’s PUB initiative would compliment this and could be distributed as associated material. Professional economists and statisticians should be invited to participate in this work. One proposal of interest was for formal legislation to be introduced that would oblige all those who develop plans for water resource or flood control projects to include therein a quantitative estimate of the uncertainty in any of the design figures presented. This would be required in preliminary plans, detailed designs and in operational plans. Consultants who do not comply with this requirement would be excluded from bidding for future projects. The result would be that those who accept to fund and implement such plans would do so in the face of a clear statement as to uncertainty, and would feel obliged to adopt more conservative options with higher costs or lower productivity so as to reduce that uncertainty to levels which the public will accept. This would be a great step forward for project design in general but, in particular, it would demonstrate publicly the price that is being paid for giving so little support to acquiring and retaining hydrological knowledge. The hope is this would lead to more resources being channeled to data collection and storage and the training of technicians and professionals.

21 October 2007

Science in the US Presidential Race

Primary Sources:
4 October 2007
Scientific Integrity and Innovation: Remarks at the Carnegie Institution for Science

Finally, with only fourteen months to go, a US Presidential candidate in the running has spoken about their intended science policies, and guess who it was...yep, Ms. Hillary something something Clinton, former first lady and current Democratic Senator from New York. I believe her husband is at home doing the dishes right now...oh, wait, he's been out campaigning and at rallies for his wife. What a guy...

There were a couple of quotes worth noting here, the first a handful of campaign promises that I think we should hold her to, should she become the 44th President of the US: "I'll fully fund NASA's earth sciences program, launch a new, comprehensive space-based study of climate change..."

There was another autobiographical quote that was telling as well: "Some of you know that I even wrote to NASA asking how I could apply to be an astronaut and got back an answer saying that they weren't taking women...I have lived long enough to see that change!"

So Mrs. Clinton had ambitions in science as a kid! I wonder who squashed that, other than NASA itself, and whether he's still teaching in grade school. As for NASA, they finally saw the light and recognized that anyone can be a space monkey and work for a week on the shuttle or the ISS, but it takes certain special people to draw wider attention and foster the ambitions of younger generations. I, for one, was far more inspired by the female astronauts than the rest of the program, and I remember it being that much more poignant when the Challenger exploded in 1986 that there was a woman and mom on board, and only slightly less so that she was a teacher too.

So, should Mrs. Clinton re-enter the White House, should we expect a mandate for more women in space? I doubt it. But will we see better attention to girls in classrooms and women in science? I think you can bet safely on that.

Now, before you jump on me as a Hillary supporter or a Democrat or even (God forbid) a "liberal" in any sense of the word, first note that I'm just passing along the news here. This post and anything in it that could be misconstrued as an opinion should be reconsidered as neutral, and I'm registered as an "undeclared" voter. I'll make my decisions when the right time comes, and it's a long way to next November.

...coming back to life...

OK, so I've been away from the blog for a while. Life, family, work...you all know how it goes. Staying busy does not necessarily mean that the blog gets a respectable chunk of my time, unfortunately.

That's not to say, however, that there haven't been many events and topics on which I would like to have posted over that time. In fact, I've been a bit active on Tom Barnett's blog in the past several weeks, and I've been reading several books and watching the news, so I'm not altogether out of circulation. There are a few things on which in the near future you'll see posts and comments that hark back to mid-September, including some foreign policy and political issues, as well as some recent conferences and two symposia that I'll be attending this week in the DC area. The first is on Monday at the University of Maryland, and the latter on Saturday at the Smithsonian, at which Tom Barnett will be speaking.

I've also been thinking on many things, not the least of which have been my work (in the middle of the publication for one paper, and writing more than one more right now) and my plans for the future. Big dreams, big ideas, lots of little pieces coming together and lots more to be discovered, I am sure. In the meantime, I'll be thinking out loud sometimes, and it will be marked out as such. I think my original vision for this blog as a venue for coherent analysis of sometimes disparate and inscrutable facts, results, events and news was right on the mark, and so now I have built up quite a backlog of posting ideas and commentary. Each idea perks in its own time, though.

P.S. yes, the title of this post is indeed a pop-culture reference...look it up...