WASHINGTON— More than a million Iraqis are in danger of being killed if the poorly maintained Mosul dam collapses and the Tigris River rushes out. The government began urgent maintenance work on the dam Thursday. Authorities have warned people who live along the Tigris to move at least six kilometers away from the banks.
Maintenance work began Thursday to shore up the dam's weakening structure, undermined by years of conflict and neglect. Iraqis living near the Tigris River are worried.
"We are afraid and we don't know if it's true or not true that the dam could collapse. We are worried because we have family and kids. And we are stressed. We live very close to the Tigris," said a local man.
The dam needs regular maintenance because the ground underneath it is unstable. The government this week signed a $300-million deal with Italy's Trevi group to repair and maintain the structure for 18 months. But many Iraqis fear the dam could collapse before the Italian engineers arrive and assemble their machinery.
''It is certain that the rising water levels will have a negative impact on citizens. We hope the relevant authorities will work hard to resolve this problem in order not to let the water leak into commercial interests and homes of locals,” said Baghdad resident Raad al-Quraishi.
As the snow melts, the water pressure grows. A gate was opened to ease some of the water pressure, raising the levels of the Tigris River. But officials have downplayed the danger.
"The quantities of water which flowed into the Tigris River have been utilized well in the agricultural plans drawn up by the Ministry of Water Resources in accordance with the Ministry of Agriculture. And big quantities of water have been used to flourish and revive the marshes which suffered a lot from water scarcity in the previous season," said Ali Radhi Thamir of the state committee on irrigation and drainage projects.
The U.S. Embassy said this week that the risk of the dam collapsing is "serious and unprecedented." U.S. and Iraqi governments are working on a plan to evacuate as many as 1.5 million Iraqis living along the Tigris.
The dam deteriorated during the conflict, including a temporary capture by the Islamic State militants. Its maintenance has remained insufficient in part because Islamic State still controls the factory that produces the cement for the dam's foundation.