Middle East

Iraq's Mosul Dam at risk of bursting as erosion takes its toll

Mosul dam
Image caption The Mosul Dam, the largest in Iraq, holds back billions of cubic metres of water

Othman Mahmoud al-Barazinj is a farmer who has been living in the shadow of Iraq's largest dam ever since the colossal facility was established in the 1980s.

Now in his 60s, Othman and fellow villagers in the town of Wana, 22 miles (35km) north-east of Mosul, still depend on the dam as a vital source of water and irrigation for his crops.

"Life is water," said Othman, who is proud of his Kurdish roots, adding that his ancestors have lived in Wana for the last 800 years.

Sitting on an earth mound on the edge of his field, and puffing on a cigarette, he said his family had been uprooted from the town just once, when militants from the so-called Islamic State (IS) captured Mosul Dam and Wana in August 2014.

IS extremists were forced to retreat from the dam after 11 days, and from a number of surrounding villages, following US-led air strikes and a ground offensive by Kurdish Peshmerga forces.

Dressed in traditional Kurdish clothes and speaking in broken Arabic, Othman said: "We can't imagine what life would be like if we had to leave our houses again this time under the threat of the potential collapse of the dam."

Media captionOthman Mahmoud al-Barazinj talks about living in the shadow of the dam

Inaugurated in 1984 during the era of Saddam Hussein, the dam today is falling into disrepair as a result of neglect over the past 18 months after the Kurds wrested it back from IS.

Budget shortfalls due to the slump in oil prices and political rivalry between the central government in Baghdad and the regional government of the semi-autonomous Iraq Kurdistan have hampered urgently needed repairs.

There is also a desperate shortage of workers. Half the workforce has left the dam for other jobs on account of not being paid for up to five months.

We had special access inside the dam's labyrinth of tunnels to see the urgent problems first-hand.

Outdated machinery is still being used to try to stabilise the dam's foundations.

Image caption Half of the dam's workers have left after months without pay

The dam's deputy director, Mohsen Yaqoub, showed us samples of soil that had suffered erosion.

"These black parts are the treated cement used to inject into the holes and fractures created by the water that constantly eats away at the unstable foundation of the dam," he said.

"The dam is today in danger because of the erosion at the natural gypsum base under the water and serious erosion at the flow gates.

"The joints at the two main gates have been dislocated vertically and horizontally, which could lead to the collapse of the dam but we don't know when. It could happen next month, next year or in five years' time. We actually don't know when."

The Iraqi government has been struggling for more than two years to strike a deal with an international company to undertake the much-needed repair works.

Insecurity is scaring away bidders and the economic crisis has forced the oil-rich country to seek help from the World Bank and key allies like the United States.

"We just have empty promises from the international community to repair the dam," said Mr Yaqoub, who was previously an engineer at the site for 28 years.

"I met the American advisers and took them in a tour inside the dam. They were just nodding at my detailed scientific explanation of the dangers and the efforts made by us to protect the structure."

Cities at risk

Mosul and other northern cities in the path of the river would be vulnerable if the dam fails. At present, locals say they are not aware of any emergency warning systems to deal with a potential catastrophe in waiting.

And if this dam collapsed, it would cause massive devastation to entire communities along the Tigris River.

Cities such as Mosul, Tikrit, Samarra and even down to the capital Baghdad are the most vulnerable. Massive floods could kill and render homeless hundreds of thousands, the US state department has warned.

Asked what he would do if the dam fails, 22-year-old shepherd Amin Jabouri, who tends his flocks close by, had an immediate response.

"We have no other option but to head for a higher ground. Even if there was an alarm system, it would not work for us and we would have to run for our lives."