This Dam in Iraq is About to Burst — And 1.5 Million Lives Are at Stake

Getty Images

The largest dam in Iraq is on the brink of collapse, and if it does, millions of civilians could be killed in the deluge of water it unleashes.

According to to the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, anywhere between 500,000 and 1.47 million Iraqis "probably would not survive" the fast-moving wall of water that would rush forth if the Mosul Dam were to crumble. 

Water as deep as 45 feet could fill the city of Mosul, while cities downstream — including Tikrit, Samarra and the country's capital, Baghdad — would also become endangered by the flood.

An employee works at strengthening the Mosul Dam in Iraq.Source: SAFIN HAMED/Getty Images
An employee works at strengthening the Mosul Dam in Iraq.  SAFIN HAMED/Getty Images

The massive structure was given the title of the "world's most dangerous dam" immediately upon its completion in 1985, with almost every aspect of its construction involving a massive structural flaw.

Its foundation was built on soft earth that is constantly being eroded by water. The stones used to construct its walls, gypsum and anhydrite, are highly soluble and have been steadily dissolving over time. And in 2014, a fresh threat emerged when ISIS took control of the territory where the dam is located, prompting fears among officials that the terrorist group might destroy it. 

Though the group only held the dam for 10 days, the temporary occupation caused over a month of stalling in its maintenance and structural repairs.

In the event of the dam's failure, populations in the path of the floodwaters would be faced with the choice "to flee or risk being stranded by flood," Ambassador Samantha Power tweeted in March.

Though a group of Italian engineers, known as Trevi Group, has reached an agreement with the Iraqi government to shore up the dam, many believe it to be a temporary solution. A long-term fix would likely involve constructing a second dam — a project that could cost over $2 billion dollars.

Iraqi officials are largely dismissive of U.S. warnings that the dam's collapse will happen soon, including Water Resources Minister Mohsen al-Shimari, who told Iraq's Alsumeria News that the dam is stable for now.

"The danger is not imminent, it's far off," he said. "The danger is 1 in 1,000. ... The danger for Mosul Dam is no greater than that of other dams."

An Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga stands guard near the Mosul Dam.Source: SAFIN HAMED/Getty Images
An Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga stands guard near the Mosul Dam.  SAFIN HAMED/Getty Images

But Nadhir Al-Ansari, a professor of civil engineering at Sweden's Lulea Institute of Technology, warns that government officials could be seriously misinformed.

"I have seen who was talking about the problem and I can assure you that more than 95 percent of the people appeared to have no engineering information or idea about dams. They have not seen a real dam in their life — maybe in photos," Al-Ansari said.