Will Mosul Dam hold? Don’t count on it

Employees work at strengthening the Mosul Dam. (Reuters)

Much has been written about Mosul Dam, branded “the most dangerous dam in the world” by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 2006. Since then, the structure’s condition has only deteriorated, prompting the Army engineers to file a more urgent report on Jan. 30.

The recent assessment sees the structure “at a significantly higher risk of failure than originally understood,” after “an unprecedented level of untreated voids” were discovered in its foundation.

Should the dam break, a 20m high tidal wave would race down the Tigris and flood the ISIS-held city of Mosul, Tikrit, Samara and Baghdad before losing its deadly momentum. U.S. officials estimate that up to 500,000 Iraqis could lose their lives.

The realistic risk of such a catastrophe should have raised concern among the political class in Baghdad; instead the reaction was one of widespread denial. ‘All is well, don’t worry’ was the gist of the sound bites emanating from the capital.

All is calm… for now?

To get a firsthand view of the structure in question, I went to visit it last week. The dam is close to the frontline with ISIS, which held it for ten days in August 2014 before being expelled by the Kurds. The Peshmerga at the checkpoints told me that they still receive mortar fire from across the trenches on a daily basis.

At the site itself, all is calm. The mighty structure continues to keep hundreds of million cubic meters at bay with apparent ease, seemingly belying the increasingly urgent warnings about its structural integrity.

But looks can be deceiving. The dam’s foundation needs constant injection of cement mix to fill the cavities that appear due to infirm ground, a practice called “grouting”. There is plenty of evidence that the grouting has not been sufficient since ISIS held the dam, which could lead to a sudden collapse of the structure.

The officials at the site insist that extensive monitoring of the dam shows that the cavities are not weakening the structure, and that the measures taken to stabilize the foundations are adequate.

They concede, however, that the people living in areas that would be flooded might not aware of the emergency plans the government is adamant it has put in place.

Since emergency plans that aren’t communicated to the very people that will need to follow them are not worth the paper they are written on, the handling of the situation does not exactly inspire confidence. Either there is no plan, in which case the government is lying, or there is a plan that has no chance of being implemented in time, in which case the government is bungling its disaster management even before anything has happened.

Trevi, an Italian company, was recently chosen to bring the dam up to scratch after years of neglect, and a contract thought to be worth $300m is expected to be signed soon.

But for now, I certainly wouldn’t want to be living downstream of the dam. The people of Mosul, who are prevented from leaving the city by ISIS, can only pray that the terror group is not the least of their worries.

Last Update: 11:27 KSA 14:27 - GMT 11:27