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Officials Issue Warning on Dam Failure

Friday, March 4, 2016

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Despite contracting a construction firm to make critical repairs to a failing hydroelectric dam in Mosul, Iraq, engineers and the U.S. government are warning that a collapse could be imminent.

The destruction to human life, as well as archeological and cultural sites, is also now forecast to be greater than originally predicted, The Guardian reported Wednesday (March 2).

By U.S. Army Corps of Engineers / Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
By U.S. Army Corps of Engineers / Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The Iraqi government formally signed a €273 million (about US $298 million) contract with Italian contractor Trevi Group to reinforce and maintain the Mosul dam over the course of 18 months, according to reports.

The danger has prompted the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad to issue a security message to U.S. citizens urging their preparation to evacuate.

“We have no specific information that indicates when a breach might occur, but out of an abundance of caution, we would like to underscore that advance preparation and contingency plans for prompt evacuation offers the most effective tool to ensure safety,” the Embassy said. 

“Planning in advance to move away from the river to higher ground in accordance with local guidance in the event of a breach could save many lives,” it added.

Building Pressure, Weakened Structure

The Iraqi government formally signed a €273 million (about US $298 million) contract with Italian contractor Trevi Group to reinforce and maintain the Mosul dam over the course of 18 months, according to The Guardian. The deal was originally announced in early February.

However, engineers who were involved in the dam’s construction more than 30 years ago indicate that it may be too late, the paper noted.

They explained that the melting of winter snows, which brings more water into the reservoir, is putting more pressure on a structure already compromised by porous bedrock. The pressure is building quickly as the incoming water reaches the dam’s maximum capacity.

“The water level is now 308 metres [about 1,011 feet] but it will go up to over 330 metres [about 1,083 feet]. And the dam is not as before,” said Nadhir al-Ansari, engineering professor at the Luleå University of Technology in Sweden and former engineer on the dam. “The caverns underneath have increased. I don’t think the dam will withstand that pressure.”

Mosul Dam Outlet
Army Corps of Engineers / Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

An increase in water coming into the reservoir is putting more pressure on a structure already compromised by porous bedrock, but the sluice gates that would release water to relieve pressure are jammed shut, engineers said.

Meanwhile, the sluice gates normally used to release water and relieve that pressure are jammed shut, they added.

“One of them is jammed, and when one of them is closed the other one has to be closed. They must work together,” Nasrat Adamo, the dam’s former chief engineer, said. “Otherwise, you get asymmetric flow and that speeds up the erosion.”

Maintenance and Repairs

As reported earlier, the country's largest dam, which had been taken over by the Islamic State (IS) briefly in 2014, faces catastrophic failure from two faults: a “lapse in maintenance” and flawed construction, which sited the structure on unstable soils that erode when in contact with water.

The Iraqi government has had to address construction flaws in the 2.2-mile-long dam since its completion in 1984. Workers inject a mortar-like grout into the subsoil and cavities to help shore up the foundation and control seepage.

According to the Saudi Gazette, the original plan during construction was “to sink a curtain of grouting above the dam site to protect the soluble gypsum on which it was to sit.” But a faster solution was demanded by Saddam Hussein. “Thus the seeds of a potentially devastating collapse were sown more than 35 years ago,” the paper wrote.

Adamo, who is reported to have spent most of his time at the dam shoring it up to address the construction flaws, recently told The Guardian the dam requires “round-the-clock work” with crews grouting holes in the porous bedrock underneath.

However, that process stalled when Isis seized the dam for a two-week period in 2014. With maintenance disregarded, the structure became further weakened as the crevices beneath the dam multiplied and grew in size.

Additionally, equipment and workers are now in short supply.

“We used to have 300 people working 24 hours in three shifts but very few of these workers have come back,” Adamo told the paper. "There are perhaps 30 people there now.”

“The machines for grouting have been looted. 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,” he added.

Potential for Disaster

As far back as 2007, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq and the top American military commander in the country warned that, at worst, “an instantaneous failure of Mosul dam filled to its maximum operating level could result in a flood wave 66 feet deep at the city of Mosul,” Iraq’s second-largest city, about 25 miles away.

Aerial View of Mosul Dam
By Ali Haidar Khan / CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The country's largest dam, seen here from an aerial view, faces catastrophic failure from two faults: a “lapse in maintenance” and flawed construction, which sited the structure on unstable soils that erode when in contact with water.

Now, according to a fact sheet issued by the U.S. Embassy, an "in-land tidal wave" could rush 174 miles south along the Tigris River to the city of Samarra (a UNESCO World Heritage site, National Geographic reported).

Floodwaters in Mosul could reach 70 feet according to some predictive models, the government noted.

“Mosul Dam faces a serious and unprecedented risk of catastrophic failure with little warning. A catastrophic breach of Iraq’s Mosul Dam would result in severe loss of life, mass population displacement, and destruction of the majority of the infrastructure within the path of the projected floodwave,” the embassy warned.

In this event, anywhere from 500,000 to 1.47 million people are at risk from the resulting flood if they do not evacuate the area in time.

The embassy likened the potential flooding south of Samarra to Hurricane Katrina, and that standing water could persist in the city of Baghdad for a period of weeks to months.

Flood waters are predicted to reach depths greater than 45 feet in some parts of Mosul City in as little as one to four hours, giving residents little time to flee.

Waters could reach Tikrit in one to two days and Baghdad in three to four days at depths of up to 33 feet in the river channel, the embassy noted.

   

Tagged categories: Infrastructure; Locks and dams; Power Plants

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