Mosul Dam, which was never structurally sound to begin with, depends on constant maintenance in order to keep it in one piece. Because Iraq is at war with ISIS and is run by a government that’s unable to accomplish even the more critically urgent tasks either out of incompetence or political gridlock, that maintenance isn’t being done anymore. The two gates that are opened periodically to release water and reduce pressure on the dam is jammed shut (technically only one is jammed, but they can’t be opened individually), so water is backing up and backing up. You can probably see where this is leading:
Iraqi engineers involved in building the Mosul dam 30 years ago have warned that the risk of its imminent collapse and the consequent death toll could be even worse than reported.
They pointed out that pressure on the dam’s compromised structure was building up rapidly as winter snows melted and more water flowed into the reservoir, bringing it up to its maximum capacity, while the sluice gates normally used to relieve that pressure were jammed shut.
In the hours after the Mosul Dam collapses and sends a ~20 meter high wave gushing down the Tigris valley, that wave will pass through, among many other places, Mosul (in a matter of hours) and Baghdad (within a couple of days). Estimates are that between 500,000 and 1 million people could be killed in the flooding, though if the ensuing evacuation of Baghdad (Mosul is still under ISIS’s control) is botched, and you’d be a sucker to bet that it wouldn’t be, then the toll could be far higher than that.
The Iraqi government signed a deal today with an Italian firm to reinforce and maintain the dam for the next 18 months, but there are obvious security issues that need to be worked out before teams of Italian engineers can just show up and start working. So it’s not like they’ll be able to start tomorrow. And in the meantime it sounds like the dam could go at any time. The Guardian reports that there’s going to be an “international conference” to discuss ways to prevent a disaster, which sounds great as long as the dam doesn’t burst until next month. Because the “emergency” conference has been scheduled for April.
It’s not like anybody just noticed this problem, either; Mosul Dam has been like this almost since it was completed in the mid 1980s, thanks to problems in the bedrock that weren’t found when the dam was being built. ISIS briefly held the dam in 2014 and there was a fear that they might blow it up, which is why an operation to retake it was carried out in very short order. Basically what I’m saying is that it’s symptomatic of Iraq’s overall political implosion that nobody did anything about this looming disaster until what appears to be the very last minute. I’d also be willing to entertain the argument that the Obama administration could have intervened, but for all I know maybe they tried and were rebuffed. Hopefully it’s not too late.