WASHINGTON — Iraq's massive Mosul Dam risks devastating failure without additional urgent repairs as the government keeps stalling over how to proceed with the critical reconstruction after this year.
A rupture of the 370-foot-high structure would put 4 million people at risk by sending floodwaters racing more than 200 miles downstream as far as the capital of Baghdad, engulfing villages, destroying farms and causing up to $20 billion in economic damages, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimates.
The Iraqi government has delayed a decision on whether to renew a contract with an Italian engineering firm managed by the Corps of Engineers when it expires after this year. It may try to make the critical repairs itself to save money at a time when it is feeling a cash squeeze because of the cost of the war to expel the Islamic State from the country.
Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite, commander of the Army Corps, told USA TODAY he fears the government is "going to be too optimistic" about the level of repairs needed and may not renew the contract.
The government is running out of time to make a decision. “I’m kind of expecting in another couple of months we’ll either get a decision or probably not get a decision, which means by default then ... we’ll unplug,” Semonite said.
Iraq's government faces deep political divisions that often delay critical decisions. The financial squeeze adds to the indecision. “When you’re fighting a war and oil prices are where they are, you don’t have a lot left over to fund public works,” said William Watts, an analyst at Dunia Frontier Consultants.
The current contract with Trevi Group is worth $300 million, some of which is funded with World Bank and other loans. The dam will require at least another year’s worth of intensive work before it is stabilized, the Corps of Engineers estimates.
“The risk that the dam poses is still extremely high and it will be still at the end of this first year,” said Eric Halpin, an Army Corps dam safety official.
Construction of the dam, which provides irrigation and hydroelectric power, was completed under the regime of Saddam Hussein in 1985. The dam — a half-mile wide at its base — was properly constructed but built on a foundation of water soluble materials, according to the Army Corps.
Ever since it was built, workers regularly have to drill holes and pump grout — a mixture of cement, water and clay — into the holes to strengthen the foundation. But maintenance declined in recent years, raising concerns of a massive failure.
The dam had been seized by the Islamic State in 2014 when the militants first invaded Iraq, but it was quickly taken back by Iraqi forces. Soon afterward, engineers discovered the dam was in bad shape, not only the result of damage caused by the Islamic State but also from prior years of neglect.
The work to stabilize the dam began a year ago. Corps officials believe that after an additional year of intensive work to stabilize the structure, Iraq can focus on routine annual maintenance.
“We think at the end of the second year … we’ll be safe enough where then you’ll certainly bring down the risk,” Semonite said.
One key reason for renewing the contract is that the Italian firm and U.S. engineers employ new techniques and technology to the repair work, which Iraqi workers still need to learn.
“The key part of transitioning from the Italian firm to the government of Iraq is that all of those new things — new technology and materials — are understood and can be executed correctly (and) effectively by the Iraqis,” Halpin said.
Analysts say Iraq's fractured government needs to come together and recognize the need to spend money on the repairs. “The Mosul Dam requires that the whole Iraqi government ... focus on the issue," said Lukman Faily, former Iraqi ambassador to the United States. "That is not happening now."
“It shouldn't be a political issue," he said. "It's a humanitarian issue."
Consultant Watts said Iraq’s government may approve the contract at the last minute. “A lot of times things do come down to the wire,” Watts said.