BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Despite intense U.S. pressure to act to keep Iraq’s largest dam from collapsing, Baghdad has done little to prepare Iraqis for the possibility of a burst that could unleash a flood reaching the capital and killing hundreds of thousands of people.
The government signed a $296-million contract with Italy’s Trevi Group (TFI.MI) last month to reinforce northern Iraq’s fragile Mosul Dam, but it has not announced any specific plans to try to rescue people in the event of a breach or instructed them in detail how to react safely.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s most significant public statement on the dam, which was not widely distributed, advised millions of people living in the path of a potential flood that they should move to higher ground, but provided few specifics.
U.S. officials have said Washington feels Baghdad has failed to take the threat seriously enough.
A U.S. government briefing paper released in late February said the 500,000 to 1.47 million Iraqis living in the highest-risk areas along the Tigris River “probably would not survive” the impact of a flood’s impact unless they evacuated. Swept hundreds of miles along in the waters would be unexploded ordnance, chemicals, bodies and buildings.
A senior official at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) said the most lives could be saved by advising people in advance of what to do in the event of a breach of the structure, once known as Saddam Dam and opened in the mid 1980s.
“You want to make sure when you have a major hazard risk that the population that is going to be potentially affected is aware of that, that they know what to do about it when it happens, and they understand how they’re going to be alerted to it,” the official said.
Instead, Iraqi authorities have downplayed the threat. The water minister estimated last month there was only a one in 1,000 chance of failure, a “risk level present in all the world’s dams”.
On Jan. 21, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with Abadi in Davos, Switzerland, and handed him a confidential note from President Barack Obama pleading for urgent action.
The president’s personal intervention indicated how the dam’s fragility has moved to the forefront of U.S. concerns over Iraq, reflecting fears its failure would also undermine U.S. efforts to stabilize Abadi’s government and complicate the war against Islamic State.
Iraqi forces launched a new offensive last week in Makhmour, 60 km (40 miles) south of Mosul, as the beginning of a broader campaign to clear areas around the city but so far progress has been slow.
There is no sign that a breach of Mosul Dam is imminent, but the structure was built on what one senior American official has called “the geologic equivalent of Swiss cheese.”
Baghdad updated a 2006 evacuation plan last year that calls for moving people to the southern provinces, a government source briefed on Mosul Dam planning said last month.
The humanitarian impact would be “a logistical nightmare”, the source said. “Water, toilets, food. If this happens in summer you need to get them out of the sun. If it happens in the winter, you need to keep them warm.”
The source said the government had planned to set up a siren system in high-risk areas and use television, radio, social media and text messages to tell people what to expect and how to prepare. So far, none of that has happened.
The government source told Reuters the Iraqi government had consulted with military commanders about how to evacuate millions of people from their homes but then decided to leave it to municipal authorities to keep residents informed.
“In terms of communicating all of this to the public, I don’t think it will happen unless there is an imminent risk that the dam is going to break any second.”
The source said the government felt the threat had been reduced by signing the contract for repairs and feared pre-warning would unnecessarily stir fear among the population, which already faces regular security threats.
“It was seen as unnecessary and adding to the tensions we already have,” the source added.
Paul Salem, vice president of the Middle East Institute, a Washington think-tank, said Baghdad’s attitude towards the dam could be explained at least in part by culture.
“The American approach to disaster management is, better safer than sorrier. The Arab approach is, let’s not talk about it,” he said.
Sami Khalaf, who owns a convenience store in Baghdad, said he was not worried about the dam flooding and didn’t know anyone who was. “People are more concerned today with politics than Mosul or the dam,” he said. “If it was true, there would at least be more regular warnings.”
USAID and the U.N. development agency UNDP began working with the Iraqi government weeks ago to set up an early alert system using sirens and other mechanisms, but it is not yet ready and little else has been done to prepare residents.
A senior diplomat in Baghdad said the U.S. government was alarmed by Baghdad’s slowness to educate civilians about a possible breach.
“The difference is how you account for why you haven’t seen that,” the diplomat said. “Do you account for it by the fact that the government is facing an existential crisis or do you account for that as the Americans do, which is that the Iraqis are stonewalling?”
Iraq, still fighting Islamic State on multiple fronts, now faces a political crisis this month with Abadi under pressure to reshuffle his government in order to dismantle patronage networks that enable graft or step down.
Efforts to repair the 3.5 km (2.2 mile)-long hydroelectric dam -- which lies about 48 km (30 miles) northwest of the city of Mosul -- have been handicapped by Iraq’s chaotic security situation; political divisions in Baghdad; years of previous warnings that did not prove correct; and a cultural divide, U.S. and Iraqi officials and analysts have said.
Fears in Washington that Iraqi forces might blow up the dam during the 2003 U.S.-led invasion resurfaced in 2014 when Islamic State briefly captured it before being pushed off by coalition air strikes and Kurdish peshmerga fighters.
Some Iraqi officials suggested the United States is exaggerating the risk to shift blame for any collapse to Islamic State after, they say, Washington failed to find a permanent solution in the decade that U.S. forces occupied the country.
After several months of coverage in local media, the prime minister’s office made its most comprehensive public comments about the dam in late February.
In a statement posted on his website, Abadi gave an overview of the dam’s condition and his government’s plans to repair it.
He described a possible scenario of a dam collapse which would see a 15-meter (50-foot) wave submerge parts of Mosul within four hours. Water would hit the city of Tikrit the following day and by the fourth day a 10-meter wave would reach the capital Baghdad, he said.
The only guidance to civilians was to move around six kilometers away from the river. “I don’t think it will be more than that,” the government source said. “The aim was to say, ‘At least we put it out on public record somewhere’.”
Additional reporting by Warren Strobel in Washington; Writing by Stephen Kalin, editing by Peter Millership