Saving Mosul Dam from afar

5:38 min

Engineers, academics and politicians gathered in central Stockholm Tuesday to help diffuse an ongoing crisis in northern Iraq where a crumbling hydro-dam threatens to wash way towns and thousands of people.

Built in 1986, experts say the Mosul dam could collapse at any moment. Such a disaster would be catastrophic, flooding a city of about 1 million people and much of the country downstream along the Tigris River.

Nadhir Al-Ansari is a professor of civil engineering at Luleå University of Technology in Sweden's far north. Originally from Baghdad, he's been involved with the dam since its beginning, carrying out an early report about its structural problems. He says the dam's location was flawed from the get-go.

It was built on a bed of limestone and gypsum, a soft mineral that dissolves in water. That means the ground beneath the dam and its reservoir is slowly being eaten away by the water seeping into the weak bedrock, causing the dam to settle and crack.

Repairs have been carried out for decades with crews buttressing the dam's foundation by injecting grout into the cracks and holes that develop. That upkeep, however, ground to a halt two years ago when the Islamic State (IS) took control of Iraq's largest dam.

"Everybody ran away," Al-Ansari tells Radio Sweden. "And that meant the cavities were increasing under the foundation of the dam." 

Now, to make matters worse, springtime and early summer see more water flowing into the dam's reservoir, building up additional pressure on the structure.

That's why a team of researchers and engineers are meeting this week to create an action plan meant to solve the crisis. Experts from the US, Canada, Sweden and elsewhere in Europe are in the capital. The group will prepare a roadmap for the dam's future that will be handed over to the Iraqi government.

"We as academics and scientists have a responsibility to tell people what we know," fellow Luleå University professor Sven Knutsson says. "If people listen or not, that's another thing but we have to say what we know."

Recently the Iraqi government signed a deal with an Italian company to repair and upgrade the dam. But those following the situation wonder if their efforts will be enough in the short term. 

Al-Ansari and Knutsson say the best bet is to finish construction on a secondary dam that sits downriver. But that project will take about 2 years to complete. In the meantime the Mosul dam could collapse. Al-Ansari tells Radio Sweden it's only a matter of time.

"Sooner or later, we can assure you that it will fail," he says.