US warns collapse of Mosul Dam could be ‘catastrophic’
BAGHDAD - Iraqis have seen it all: a totalitarian regime that fired chemicals on minority groups and executed adversaries, devastating wars with Iran and Kuwait in the 1980s and 1990s that killed hundreds of thousands, a crippling international embargo that wrecked its economy and a US-led invasion that toppled its leadership in 2003.
Since then, violence and sectarianism have gripped Iraq, threatening to rip it apart and divide it into three parts along ethnic and religious lines — a Sunni state in the centre, Shia in the south and Kurdish in the north.
To add to their troubles, Iraqis now face another danger: A tsunami-like event that, experts warn, would stem from the collapse of the Mosul dam in the north.
Experts caution that if the dam’s walls or base rupture, the structure, which holds back 8.1 billion-11.1 billion cubic metres (bcm) of water, would send a deluge of at least 4 bcm charging at 3.5 kilometres per second with waves as high as 25.3 metres, inundating Mosul and its population of 650,000. The Tigris river would flood, with waves as high as 4 metres rushing towards Baghdad and cities further south.
The top US general in Iraq said on January 28th the collapse of the dam could prove “catastrophic”. US Army Lieutenant-General Sean McFarland said the United States had developed a contingency plan with the Iraqi government. “When it goes, it’s going to go fast and that’s bad,” he was quoted as saying.
The main problem is the dam’s gypsum and limestone bed, which began to dissolve when water was collected in it, causing cracks, slides and caves to form in the soil, dam expert Nadhir al-Ansari said. Another predicament is a significant crack in the soil in the middle of the dam, added Ansari, who inspected the dam in its early stages of operation in 1984.
“And there are serious miscalculations in the movement of water and the boundary of the dam, which is making the walls more susceptible,” Ansari said.
In 2006, US Army geologists and engineers determined that the dam needed to be rehabilitated at a cost of $6 million but the Iraqi government considered it too expensive and an unneeded expenditure since there was no imminent threat, according to Iraqi officials.
The Iraqi government never took the warnings seriously. “They went after temporary, piecemeal alternatives but completely ignored solutions that would have tackled the core of the problem,” said a state engineer who prepared several reports on the dam.
“Unfortunately, the government disregarded the warning, which led us to where we are now,” said the official insisting on anonymity.
Islamic State (ISIS) militants, who seized the dam in August 2014, stole equipment and chased away technicians, which hampered an important grouting schedule. “When that stopped, obviously the deterioration of the dam increased accordingly,” said coalition spokesman US Army Colonel Steve Warren.
Iraq has invited Italian experts to suggest solutions to the problems with the hydroelectric dam, whose foundation requires constant grouting to maintain structural integrity. Baghdad is looking for permanent solutions to structural flaws that surfaced soon after the construction of the dam began in January 1981 but became visible when it became fully operational in July 1986.
The Trevi Group, an Italian company, secured a deal with Baghdad to upgrade the 3.6km-long dam, according to a cabinet statement released February 2nd.
Publicly, the Iraqi government insists that the dam’s condition is satisfactory and scoffs at reports suggesting it may collapse.
Aware of the risks, however, US President Barack Obama telephoned Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi on January 26th to discuss alternatives, said Iraqi lawmaker Shrouq al-Ubaiyachi.
“When Obama calls the Iraqi prime minister and the Mosul dam the focus of the call, one can’t but take the issue seriously,” Ubaiyachi said Shukri al-Hassan, an environmentalist and lecturer at the University of Mosul, predicted that, if grouting stopped, water pressure will cause the dam walls to burst.
“Flash flood of at least 110 metres high will ensue, covering all the city of Mosul within two hours and killing hundreds of thousands of its people,” Hassan said.