Mosul dam rupture: Jigsaw puzzle haunting Iraq

Sunday 05/06/2016
Full restoration operations will soon be in place

BAGHDAD - US warnings of the pos­sible collapse of Iraq’s largest dam are caus­ing concern across the country, despite Bagh­dad’s repeated assurances that there is no imminent threat of the Mosul dam failing.

The extent of US concern was highlighted in January in a letter from US President Barack Obama to Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Ab­adi. In the letter, initially reported by Reuters quoting two US officials and later confirmed to The Arab Weekly by a Western diplomat in Jordan, Obama pleaded with Abadi to take urgent action on the Mosul dam.

Obama warned of a potential ca­tastrophe posed by the dire state of the dam, whose collapse could unleash a flood killing tens of thou­sands of people and trigger an en­vironmental disaster, the diplomat said.

Obama’s personal intervention underlined how the threatened dam has moved to the heart of US concerns over Iraq. It reflected US fears that Abadi’s government could be undermined and complicate the war against the Islamic State (ISIS).

It also pointed to growing US frustration with Baghdad’s deni­als of imminent danger stemming from the dam, 48km north-west of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, which is controlled by ISIS.

A briefing paper released by the US Embassy in Baghdad in Febru­ary said that 500,000 to 1.47 mil­lion Iraqis living in the highest-risk areas along the Tigris river “prob­ably would not survive” the flood caused by the dam collape unless the area was evacuated.

It said a wall of water greater than 14 metres tall would swamp Mosul within four hours of a dam breach. Unexploded ordnance, chemi­cals, bodies and buildings would be swept along for hundreds of kilometres, while “governance and rule of law (would be) disrupted by widespread human, material, eco­nomic and environmental losses”, the paper noted.

US officials would not disclose the precise contents of Obama’s letter and Iraqi officials declined to confirm it. The diplomat insisted on anonymity, citing the sensitiv­ity of his information.

Despite the Iraqi denials, which are clearly aimed at avoiding pub­lic anxiety, officials told The Arab Weekly in private that, ahead of melting snow from surrounding mountains, the Water Ministry began in April drawing water from the Mosul dam reservoir and trans­ferring it to the nearby Thirthar dam to ease pressure on Mosul dam’s walls.

Along the banks of the Tigris, Iraqis expressed fear over their fate should the dam go bust.

“We’re worried over the dam’s collapse more than ISIS ruling us,” said Abu Yunis, a Mosul resident who spoke to The Arab Weekly by telephone. “We may be able to es­cape from ISIS by staying at home but we will be killed in a tsunami-like flood no matter what we tried to do.

“We’re frightened and we only have Allah to help us.”

Mosul resident Kaydar Khidr said the “state of panic the Ameri­cans are pushing us to is either to have us, the people or ISIS leave the city as a step towards recaptur­ing Mosul”.

“The American fears are unjus­tified,” he said, explaining that he was in touch with engineers at the dam, who assure him that it is in­tact.

Another Mosul resident, Abu Gerges, said he has “no choice, but to stay in Mosul” because “we have no place to go”.

A Mosul dam engineer told The Arab Weekly that authorities “in­jected cement to cover holes and cracks in the dam’s bed to an al­titude of 130 metres to bolster a weak foundation, prevent more leaks and stop the dam’s gypsum and limestone walls from dissolv­ing”.

However, Ahmed al-Mufty, who worked on the dam more than a decade ago, warned in an inter­view that the “dam is in a critical condition”.

“Dams anywhere in the world are a potential hazard to areas around them in a sense that they may flood and cause trouble in sur­rounding regions,” he said. “What makes things unclear regarding the Mosul dam is that declarations are based on old data from Iraqi ex­perts and engineers who left Iraq since 1995 and have not been back since.”

Another Mosul dam engineer in­sisted that the water level at Mosul was reduced to 40% of capacity. No new water has been collected behind the dam for several weeks, the engineer told The Arab Weekly, also insisting on anonymity.

On March 2nd, Iraq concluded a $296 million contract with Italy’s Trevi Group to reinforce the dam’s gypsum foundation, which may have dissolved or cracked from the stored water since the dam was inaugurated in 1983 and became fully operational in 1987.

Trevi said it will take four months to prepare the work site. The 3.5km hydroelectric dam faces its highest risk in April, May and June when melting snow causes rising water levels.

Grouting to reinforce the dam was suspended when ISIS con­trolled the dam for two weeks in August 2014, a maintenance break that is believed to have consider­ably weakened the dam’s foun­dation. Additional grout must be trucked in from Turkey because the factory in Mosul that made the material is controlled by ISIS.

Trevi officials declined comment but Mahdi Rashid, a Water Minis­try adviser who signed the contract with the Italian firm, said recently that full restoration operations will soon be in place. Rehabilitation will last 18 months, site engineer Maan Said said.