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The Catastrophic Failure of a Dam in Iraq Is Terrifyingly Close

The coming rainy season could finally mean the end of the vital Mosul Dam

The aftermath of a collapsed damn in the Brazilian state Minas Gerais

The largest dam in Iraq is going to burst. Is anyone on that?

More specifically, we’re talking about the Mosul Dam, which generates 1,000 megawatts of electricity and holds back an estimated 11 billion cubic tons of water. You don’t have to be a hydrologist to know that that’s a shit load of H2O, and when so much water starts flowing there is basically nothing in the natural world capable of stopping it at a moment’s notice. And when it gives way, that’s essentially how long hundreds of thousands of Iraqi citizens will have to seek refuge.

Mosul is Iraq’s second-largest population center, and when ISIS took over the city and its surrounding areas in the summer of 2014, the dam was of immediate concern to the government and international community. The worry was that ISIS could destroy it—seems like a pretty ISIS thing to do—and this prompted immediate military action to retake the structure. But if there’s anything more efficient at destroying infrastructure than terrorism, it’s government ineptitude. See, the Mosul Dam is rapidly deteriorating on its own, and Iraqi officials still haven’t addressed that major issue.

“The designers underestimated the geological problems,” explains Nadhir Al-Ansari, a professor of civil engineering at Sweden’s Lulea Institute of Technology and the author of the first report on problems with the dam.

Built from highly soluble gypsum and anhydrite stones, the dam is quite literally dissolving, according to a January report issued by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. But this is hardly surprising, considering seepage was already being observed along the dam as it was being constructed in 1986. With flooding expected in April and May, the weakened structure may finally reach its breaking point in the coming weeks, putting about 30 cities and villages at risk, including a little place called Baghdad. The resulting flood would directly imperil up to 1.4 million people living along the Tigris River.

“If the dam is not repaired then it will collapse,” warns Al-Ansari. “If the water level is up to the normal operation level, then the flood wave will reach the first major city within four hours and the height of the wave will be 24 meters. After 38 hours, it will reach Baghdad and the wave height will be four meters.”

That wave, by the way, was described in a new fact sheet from the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad as an “in-land tidal wave” that will “sweep downstream anything in its path, including bodies, buildings, cars, unexploded ordinances, hazardous chemicals, and waste.” And in case you need some more local context for how bad this will get for Iraqi citizens, the report says future flooding from the burst Mosul Dam will look a lot like a fairly recent catastrophic failure we experienced here in the United States, “Flooding south of Samarra would resemble that of Hurricane Katrina, with standing water that pervades much of Baghdad for weeks to months. As floodwaters recede, mud and waste-covered remnants of previous infrastructure will be left behind.”

So what can be done? Al-Ansari suggests a detailed evacuation map and immediate efforts to address the continuing seepage. But when it comes to government inaction, Al-Ansari feels it comes down to the same problem he saw in the 1980s: Officials don’t seem to know what they’re doing.

[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]An in-land tidal wave between Mosul and Samarra would sweep downstream anything in its path, including bodies, buildings, cars, unexploded ordinances, hazardous chemicals, and waste.[/quote]

“When you listen to what they say in the media, it is all misleading and contradictory information,” Al-Ansari says of the government response. “I have seen who was talking about the problem and I can assure you that more than 95 percent of the people appeared have no engineering information or idea about dams. They have not seen a real dam in their life — maybe in photos.”

To the Iraqi government's credit, a deal has been made with an Italian engineering firm to secure the dam. Alarmingly, details like when repairs will start are still being hashed out, and in the meantime, international experts are weighing in. Along with the Iraqi Foundation for Intellectuals and Academics, American Peace Ambassadors for Iraq and Lulea University of Technology, Al-Ansari will be taking part in an international workshop in Rome next month. The group will present an action plan to the Iraqi government, and if all goes according to plan, officials should have time to reinforce the dam before disaster strikes.

We can only hope that the next time a concern is raised about major infrastructure threatening the lives of millions of citizens, they'll take the warnings a bit more seriously.

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