Iraq's Mosul Dam Could Burst and Kill a Million People, Warn Engineers

Building crew digs into the Tigris river above the dam
Employees work at strengthening the Mosul Dam in northern Iraq, February 3. Engineers have warned that the dam could burst unless it is repaired to strengthen its foundations. Azad Lashkari/Reuters

Iraq's Mosul dam is at risk of imminent collapse, putting the lives of around a million people in danger, according to the engineers who built it 30 years ago, The Guardian reports.

The dam was captured by Islamist group Islamic State (ISIS), which made sweeping gains around Mosul in 2014, but urgent repairs have not gone ahead even after government forces took the city back a year ago.

Nasrat Adamo, the dam's former chief engineer, said there is only one way the structure will survive and that requires round-the-clock grouting work—a process that involves filling in holes in the porous bedrock under the structure. Such work had not been carried out since around the time of the dam's construction in 1984 and attempts to do it recently have been foiled by the fighting in the country.

"The machines for grouting have been looted," Adamo said. "There is no cement supply. They can do nothing. It is going from bad to worse, and it is urgent. All we can do is hold our hearts."

The engineering team behind the dam told the newspaper that the potential loss of life in the case of a sudden collapse of the Mosul dam could far exceed official estimates of 500,000. If a full Mosul dam bursts, it could cause a 20-meter-high flood wave which would hit not only the city of Mosul but spread across the Tigris valley through Tikrit and Samarra, possibly even reaching Baghdad.

The dam's constitution is under particular strain at the moment as winter snows melt and more water fills the reservoir, creeping towards its maximum capacity. The sluice gates, which normally work to relieve pressure, have been jammed shut. Talks in Baghdad between contractors and authorities continue, however the consistency of the rock is disintegrating every day.

Nadhir al-Ansari, another Iraqi engineer familiar with work on the dam, says seasonal complications and Iraq's lack of strong emergency protocols could spell disaster.

"In April and May, there will be a lot more snow melting and it will bring plenty of water into the reservoir," he said. "I don't think the dam will withstand that pressure. If the dam fails, the water will arrive in Mosul in four hours. It will arrive in Baghdad in 45 hours. Some people say there could be half a million people killed, some say a million. I imagine it will be more in the absence of a good evacuation plan."

One of the Iraqi engineers, now living in Europe, described as "ridiculous" the Iraqi government's emergency policy of telling local people to move 6 kilometers (3.5 miles) from the riverbanks.

"We used to have 300 people working 24 hours in three shifts but very few of these workers have come back. There are perhaps 30 people there now," Adamo said in a telephone interview from Sweden, where he works as a consultant.