Iraqi Dam Seen In Danger of Deadly Collapse

Water rushes down a spillway at Mosul Dam. As engineers monitor the structure to determine leakage, machines constantly pump grout deep into its base.
Water rushes down a spillway at Mosul Dam. As engineers monitor the structure to determine leakage, machines constantly pump grout deep into its base. (U.s. Army Corps Of Engineers)

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By Amit R. Paley
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, October 30, 2007

AT THE MOSUL DAM, Iraq -- The largest dam in Iraq is in serious danger of an imminent collapse that could unleash a trillion-gallon wave of water, possibly killing thousands of people and flooding two of the largest cities in the country, according to new assessments by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and other U.S. officials.

Even in a country gripped by daily bloodshed, the possibility of a catastrophic failure of the Mosul Dam has alarmed American officials, who have concluded that it could lead to as many as 500,000 civilian deaths by drowning Mosul under 65 feet of water and parts of Baghdad under 15 feet, said Abdulkhalik Thanoon Ayoub, the dam manager. "The Mosul dam is judged to have an unacceptable annual failure probability," in the dry wording of an Army Corps of Engineers draft report.

At the same time, a U.S. reconstruction project to help shore up the dam in northern Iraq has been marred by incompetence and mismanagement, according to Iraqi officials and a report by a U.S. oversight agency to be released Tuesday. The reconstruction project, worth at least $27 million, was not intended to be a permanent solution to the dam's deficiencies.

"In terms of internal erosion potential of the foundation, Mosul Dam is the most dangerous dam in the world," the Army Corps concluded in September 2006, according to the report to be released Tuesday. "If a small problem [at] Mosul Dam occurs, failure is likely."

The effort to prevent a failure of the dam has been complicated by behind-the-scenes wrangling between Iraqi and U.S. officials over the severity of the problem and how much money should be allocated to fix it. The Army Corps has recommended building a second dam downstream as a fail-safe measure, but Iraqi officials have rejected the proposal, arguing that it is unnecessary and too expensive.

The debate has taken place largely out of public view because both Iraqi and U.S. Embassy officials have refused to discuss the details of safety studies -- commissioned by the U.S. government for at least $6 million -- so as not to frighten Iraqi citizens. Portions of the draft report were read to The Washington Post by an Army Corps official who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter. The Post also reviewed an Army Corps PowerPoint presentation on the dam.

"The Army Corps of Engineers determined that the dam presented unacceptable risks," U.S. Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker and Gen. David H. Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq, wrote in a May 3 letter to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. "Assuming a worst-case scenario, an instantaneous failure of Mosul Dam filled to its maximum operating level could result in a flood wave 20 meters deep at the City of Mosul, which would result in a significant loss of life and property."

Sitting in a picturesque valley 45 miles along the Tigris River north of Mosul, the earthen dam has one fundamental problem: It was built on top of gypsum, which dissolves when it comes into contact with water.

Almost immediately after the dam was completed in the early 1980s, engineers began injecting the dam with grout, a liquefied mixture of cement and other additives. More than 50,000 tons of material have been pumped into the dam since then in a continual effort to prevent the structure, which can hold up to 3 trillion gallons of water, from collapsing.

After the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, American officials began to study risks posed by the dam, which they said were underestimated by Iraqis.

"Iraqi government believes dam is safe," concluded a 32-page PowerPoint presentation prepared by the Army Corps and dated December 2006.

On a tour of the dam on a recent blistering afternoon, Ayoub, the manager, contended that the dam was safe but acknowledged the unusual problems with it.


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