The Mosul Dam – a crisis we can no longer ignore

Below is a brief recap of the Mosul Dam Crisis Conference. A full report on the conference complete with findings and solutions will be provided at a later date.

On April 20th, 2016 PAFI sponsored the Mosul Dam Crisis Symposium at the Centro Studi Americani in Rome, Italy. The panelists for the conference were of diverse international backgrounds, each offering unique insight to the urgent issues surrounding the Mosul Dam based on their various professional perspectives ranging from engineering to architecture to academia.

The conference began with an introduction to the Mosul Dam (formerly the Saddam Dam), the political impetus that led to its construction, leading up to the current state of the dam and the impact following its inevitable collapse. What was resoundingly unanimous among the panelists is that the dam is under threat of collapse, its impact would affect millions of lives, and the issue demands immediate action from Iraqi and international forces.

View the recap on the Iraq Crisis Conference.

IMG_2841The keynote speaker was Dr. Nadhir Al-Ansari, a professor at the Department of Civil, Environmental and Natural Resources Engineering at Lulea Technical University in Sweden and a leading expert on dams and reservoirs. Dr. Al-Ansari began his presentation citing that the Mosul Dam is rife with multiple geotechnical problems that are contributing to its ultimate failure. The dam was built on the Tigris River 60 kilometers north of the city of Mosul as a solution to irrigation, electrical and employment needs in the region. The unfortunate reality of the dam is that it was built upon a geological foundation that continually undermines the dam’s integrity. In essence, the dam was doomed from the beginning.

View Dr. Nadhir Al-Ansari’s full presentation:

The Mosul Dam, whose construction began in 1981 and became operational in 1986, is an earthen dam with a clay core for added support. The dam obstructs 11.11 billion cubic meters of water; an amount that increases slightly in the spring months as melt water from the mountains collects in the lake, increasing pressure on the dam. While earthen dams are effective in their own right, their efficacy can be dramatically decreased if their geological foundation lacks natural strength. In the case of the Mosul Dam, the foundation is comprised of gypsum and limestone, which are relatively weak composites especially when large concentrations of water are involved.

View the Mosul Dam fact sheet.

Dr. Al-Ansari continued to say that the foundation of the Mosul Dam is full of cavities due to the natural erosive force that water has on highly soluble rock like gypsum and limestone. These cavities have contributed to seepage around the site, which is only increasing with time. Natural sedimentation from the down flow of water into the lake would aid in lowering the rate of erosion, but according to recent surveys there has not been much sediment deposited into the lake, and certainly not near the dam.

In order to combat these cavities threatening the dam structure a grouting project was implemented to stop further erosion. These grouting efforts were temporarily halted when the dam was controlled by Daesh for several weeks in July 2014, thus contributing to the growth of the sinkholes and cavities and ultimately to the seepage around the site. In addition, one of the two bottom spillage gates has not been properly functioning since 2013, thus contributing to the building mass of water behind the dam. Should the capacity get so great that spillover happens, this would only further diminish the structural integrity of the dam and expedite its collapse.

Mosul Dam InfographicWhen the Mosul Dam collapses the city of Mosul will be covered by 24 meters of water within four hours. Twenty-two hours later the city of Tikrit downstream would be inundated with 15 meters of water, and the vast majority of Baghdad could be flooded eight hours later. The U.S. Embassy estimates that 500,000 to 1.47 million lives could be lost should the Mosul Dam fail, not to mention the severely devastating impact the resulting wave would have on the infrastructure of some of Iraq’s largest cities.

The Iraqi government to date has taken a passive stance in regards to the impending Mosul Dam crisis as suggested by its modest investment in mitigating the problem. The Badush Dam 14 kilometers downstream of the Mosul Dam was a means of lessening the impact of a potential dam failure at Mosul, but the project was never finished. Instead the government has attempted to placate those most likely to be affected by the dam’s failure by insisting the government is taking preventative measures against the disaster. There is also a floating conspiracy that the notion of the dam’s collapse is American propaganda to assist in vacating the reason to allow for easier occupation by American forces.

Dr. Al-Ansari’s presentation was followed by Mr. Raimondo Luciano, an engineer and professor highly knowledgeable in the construction and maintenance of dams who went into more depth about the physical structure of the dam and its foundation. Mr. Luciano began his presentation by discussing the various types of dam structures and the materials used to build them. By looking at different dams and the ground they are built upon one can ascertain a measure of structural fidelity. In the case of the Mosul Dam, Mr. Luciano affirmed the belief that the dam is indeed facing structural failure, and based on the signs explained in Dr. Al-Ansari’s presentation, its failure is certainly imminent.

IMG_2839Having heard from two leading experts on the subject of dam construction, the panel moved into efforts proposed following the inevitable failure of the dam, namely evacuation procedures to save those lying in wake downstream of the wave. Mr. David Dewane, architect and professor at the Catholic University in Washington, D.C, spoke on how the Iraqi government might reflect on good and bad measures for planning and executing evacuation procedures. Using as an exampled Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita and their impact on cities New Orleans and Houston respectively, Mr. Dewane used their evacuation methods as case studies for effective evacuation processes, as well as questioning where governments can improve on evacuation protocol.

Following Mr. Dewane’s presentation, Mr. Lucio Ubertini reinforced Mr. Dewane’s assertion that a strong action plan in the event of the Mosul Dam failure. It will be a highly complex engineering project that will require maps of buildings and surrounding infrastructure necessary for saving as many lives as possible. Mr. Ubertini stated that the victims of hydrological disasters are typically the victims of inadequacy. By involving local insight within the mitigation process, a lot of inefficiencies can be avoided, thus saving more lives.

IMG_2848The Mosul Dam Crisis panel was closed out by Mrs. Enrica Caporali who went into full detail of the impact of the Mosul Dam’s collapse: the flood coverage, the estimated damage, and the various concerns contributing to the disaster. Mrs. Caporali also supported the notion that the Iraqi government needs to fully understand the concerns around the Mosul Dam before it is able to craft a plan fully addressing these concerns.

The panel discussion was truly an intrepid first step in finding a solution to the Mosul Dam crisis, whether though human ingenuity or by comprehensive protocols enacted to reduce the loss of life. PAFI will soon be providing a full extensive report sourced from the experts of this panel that will offer more information on the current situation of the Mosul Dam as well as potential effective solutions for mitigating this inevitable disaster.



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