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Real or imaginary threat?

Mar 26,2016 - Last updated at Mar 26,2016

Iraq could be facing a human and environmental disaster of great proportions if the Mosul Dam, on the Tigris River, is not attended to, and fast, US experts say.

The deteriorating dam, which needs daily maintenance work, according to one of the engineers who has been working on the dam since it opened, because the riverbed is made of unstable soft soil and gypsum, requiring daily grouting, was built in the early 1980s.

When Daesh took the territory around the dam, in 2014, for about seven months, work needed to keep the dam intact was stopped; even after the terrorist group was pushed out, it took months for the important maintenance work to resume.

Now the US considers it a threat so great that in February it issued a warning to its citizens about the dam’s collapse.

If it does collapse — an eventuality Iraqi engineers working on the dam reject, saying there is no tangible evidence that it could happen — it will send 11 billion cubic metres of water crashing towards Mosul, Iraq’s second biggest city, that would kill between half a million and a million-and-a-half people in minutes.

The structure, always considered fragile, was called in 2006 by the US Army Corps of Engineers “the most dangerous dam in the world”.

The threat is thought by the US to be so serious that US President Barack Obama felt obliged to urge Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi to take action.

Besides the toll in human life, a collapse of the dam would create immense environmental damage.

There is, on the part of the US, growing frustration that this danger is not being taken seriously enough.

“They dragged their feet”, unmindful of the catastrophe that looms on the horizon, commented one senior US official.

Baghdad is faced with many issues, giving priority to combating Daesh and consolidating central power on the basis of democracy and rule of law.

It did sign a $300 million deal with an Italian company to reinforce the dam, but this is not enough, experts believe, saying that the dam is sinking at the rate of 8 millimetres a year and unless major repair work is carried out, the results can be devastating.

Still, some Iraqis view the threat of Daesh as more tangible than that of a potential dam burst.

Maybe they are right, for, as one of the workers on the dam said, “we’ve always been able to sort these problems” — referring to melting snow that would put more pressure on the decades-old structure — and the US report is exaggerating.

 

But if it is not, the consequences would be unthinkable and the Iraqi government might want to take the issue of the Mosul Dam more seriously.

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