The U.S. has been putting up efforts to keep Iraq’s largest dam from collapsing; however, the Iraqi government has done little to prepare Iraqis for the possibility of a burst that could give a free rein to a flood reaching the capital and killing hundreds of thousands of people and trigger an environmental disaster.
Mosul Dam, which is 113 meters high and 3.4 km long and positioned some 50 km north of Iraq’s second largest city of Mosul, the capital of Nineveh province in northern Iraq, came into use in 1986. It was once known as Saddam Dam and opened in the mid-1980s.
The giant wall of concrete, spanning the valley of the river Tigris, holds back about 11.1 billion cubic meters of water at full capacity, creating vast lake behind the dam.
Three hydropower stations were built in the dam, which was designed to produce 1052 megawatts of electricity but due to current technical issues, they only produce 800 megawatts.
The Iraqi government signed a $296-million contract with Italy’s Trevi Group last month to reinforce northern Iraq’s fragile Mosul Dam, but it has not announced any specific plans to try to rescue people in the event of a breach or instructed them in detail how to react safely.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s brought up the issue in a public statement, which was not widely distributed, advising millions of people living in the path of a potential flood that to move to higher ground, but provided few details.
Baghdad has failed to take the threat seriously enough, U.S. officials said.
A U.S. government briefing paper released in late February said the 500,000 to 1.47 million Iraqis living in the highest-risk areas along the Tigris River “probably would not survive” the impact of a flood unless they evacuated. Swept hundreds of miles along in the waters would be unexploded artillery, chemicals, bodies and buildings.
Most lives could be saved by advising people in advance of what to do in case of a catastrophic breach in the structure, a U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) said.
“You want to make sure when you have a major hazard risk that the population that is going to be potentially affected is aware of that, that they know what to do about it when it happens, and they understand how they’re going to be alerted to it,” the official said.
Instead, Iraqi authorities have downplayed the threat. The water minister estimated last month there was only a one in 1,000 chance of failure, a “risk level present in all the world’s dams”.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with Abadi On Jan. 21 in Davos, Switzerland, and handed him a confidential note from President Barack Obama calling for urgent action.
The president’s personal intervention indicated how the dam’s fragility has moved to the forefront of U.S. concerns over Iraq, reflecting fears its failure would also undermine U.S. efforts to stabilize Abadi’s government and complicate the war against ISIS.
Iraqi forces launched a new offensive last week in Makhmour, 60 km (40 miles) south of Mosul, as the beginning of a broader campaign to clear areas around the city but so far progress has been slow.
While Iraq is fighting ISIS on multiple fronts, it also faces a political crisis this month with Abadi under pressure to reshuffle his government in order to dismantle patronage networks that enable graft or step down.
There is no sign that a breach of Mosul Dam is imminent, but the structure was built on what one senior American official has called “the geologic equivalent of Swiss cheese.”
Baghdad updated a 2006 evacuation plan last year that calls for moving people to the southern provinces, a government source briefed on Mosul Dam planning said last month.
In 2006, the American army in Iraq labeled the dam as “the most dangerous in the world”, and warned that it could collapse and trigger vast human tragedy.
More reports by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers confirmed the structure “is at a significantly higher risk of failure than originally understood,” after recent assessment.
The engineers found evidence that new channels and cavities were formed by rock dissolution under the dam’s foundation.
The humanitarian impact would be “a logistical nightmare”, the source said. “Water, toilets, food. If this happens in summer you need to get them out of the sun. If it happens in the winter, you need to keep them warm.”
USAID and the U.N. development agency UNDP began working with the Iraqi government weeks ago to set up a siren system in high-risk areas and use television, radio, social media and text messages to tell people what to expect and how to prepare. So far, none of that has happened.
Reuters cited the government source saying that the Iraqi government had consulted with military commanders about how to evacuate millions of people from their homes but then decided to leave it to municipal authorities to keep residents informed.
“In terms of communicating all of this to the public, I don’t think it will happen unless there is an imminent risk that the dam is going to break any second.”
The source said the government felt the tension had been eased by signing the contract for repairs and feared pre-warning would unnecessarily stir fear among the population, which already faces regular security threats.
“It was seen as unnecessary and adding to the tensions we already have,” the source added.
Paul Salem, vice president of the Middle East Institute, a Washington think-tank, said Baghdad’s attitude towards the dam could be explained at least in part by culture.
“The American approach to disaster management is, better safer than sorrier. The Arab approach is, let’s not talk about it,” he said.