By Matthew Schaller
On March 9, members of the United Nations met to discuss the possible risk of catastrophic failure at the Mosul Dam in Iraq. The meeting was hosted by the U.S. and Iraqi ambassadors to the U.N., Samantha Power and Mohamed Alhakim, respectively. “In the event of a breach, there is the potential in some places for a flood wave up to 14 meters high (45 feet) that could sweep up everything in its path, including people, cars, unexploded ordnance, waste, and other hazardous materials,” Power said.
Also at the meeting, Power discussed the role that U.N. member states must play in repairing the dam as soon as possible. However, former members of the Iraqi engineering team tasked with constructing the dam more than three decades ago paint an even grimmer picture than the UN ambassador’s.
The engineering team says that the jammed sluice gates utilized to relieve pressure from runoff are jammed shut. In addition, the dilemma of finding a reliable work force to manage the dam more than a year after its capture by Islamic State members further compounded this issue. Without adequate maintenance to the porous rock beneath the dam, the threat of collapse becomes more likely.
Speaking to the Guardian, former chief engineer Nasrat Adamo stated that the level of maintenance needed to shore up the flaws in the dam basically evaporated after its occupation by the Islamic State in the summer 2014. “The machines for grouting have been looted. There is no cement supply. They can do nothing… All we can do is hold our hearts.”
Another former engineer present during the dam’s inception, Nadhir al-Ansari, criticized the Iraqi government’s response to the impending collapse which called for the local population to evacuate at least 6km from the Tigris. “What are all these people, millions of people, supposed to do when they get 6km away? There is no support for them there. Nothing to help them live.”
According to CNN, talks between the Italian Foreign Minister, Paola Gentiloni, and U.S. and Iraqi officials in New York resulted in the right for an Italian contractor to maintain the Mosul Dam for the next 18 months. In addition, the Italian government plans to deploy 450 troops to protect the site.
The Mosul Dam’s inception can be traced to the 1950’s, but its construction didn’t start until the Saddam Hussein era as a result of the bedrock’s water-soluble quality in this section of the TigrisRiver. In 1986, water began seeping in at a constant rate and from then on, it required constant maintenance.
The International Business Times reported that the fear apparent in the international community during the Islamic State’s capture of the facility was that the group would either cut off Mosul’s supply of water or submerge local residents by destroying the structure.
The Badush Dam was constructed 20km downstream in order to act as a defensive mechanism in the event of a possible collapse of the Mosul Dam. However, work on the former was halted in the 1990s due to the pressure of sanctions, which left less than half completed.
According to the Guardian, an international conference will convene in Rome in April to discuss possible ways of thwarting this disaster. Nevertheless, former chief engineer Adamo states that the collapse “could be tomorrow.”