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Mosul Dam: Residents Living Downstream in Wana Fear Annihilation

The possibility of annihilation hangs over Saddeq Hassan and the rest of his fellow villagers in Wana, Iraq.
/ Source: Reuters

WANA, Iraq — The possibility of annihilation hangs over Saddeq Hassan and his neighbors.

Their town of Wana is just 7 miles downriver from the troubled Mosul dam, which U.S. officials warn is in danger of failing — which could kill between 500,000 and 1.47 million people.

A senior Iraqi official this week refused to discuss the Iraqi government's emergency evacuation plans, telling NBC News they were "secret."

Image: Sadeq Hassan
Sadeq Hassan, a 50-year-old resident of Wana, Iraq, worries that the government is not doing enough to educate people about the danger posed by Mosul dam just a few miles upriver.NBC News

Such silence leaves Hassan fearing the wall of water that could be unleashed if the event of a breach at what has been dubbed the world's most dangerous dam. Wana hugs the Tigris River and escaping an oncoming tide would be very difficult.

“We have heard through the media that the [Mosul dam] might collapse,” said Hassan, a 50-year-old retired government worker.

“I don’t know what to say to my children if the dam collapses,” he added. “Everyone will try to escape. They might leave their families and kids.”

This community's residents have seen more than their fair share of strife in recent years. ISIS militants seized the dam and the mixed Arab-Kurdish town in August 2014, forcing entire population of around 9,000 to flee. The workers whose job it is to pour cement under its foundation continuously to keep it from collapsing, a process known as "grouting," also left.

Iraqi and Kurdish forces backed by U.S. air power recaptured the dam several weeks later. But many workers did not come back because they had not been paid in months. And hiring replacements was hampered by squabbling between Baghdad and the Kurdish regional government.

So while ISIS has been driven from the area, Wana's residents still worry about the future.

“Everyone” in town was afraid of a dam collapse, according to Ahmed Mohammed, who works in one of the town’s grocery stores.

“My kids talk about when they go to school, then they ask me if the dam is going to collapse or not,” the 29-year-old said.

While nobody knows for sure when and even if there will be a failure of the installation, American officials have been warning for years that the worst could happen. In 2006, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers report called it "the most dangerous dam in the world."

On February 29, the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad warned a collapse would be "serious and unprecedented." Up to 1.47 million Iraqis would "probably would not survive" the wave, while water could reach depths of 45 feet in the city of Mosul, it said in a statement. Wana is 19 miles closer to the dam than Mosul.

Days after the U.S. Embassy’s statement, the American ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power warned that the collapse of Iraq's largest dam would be "catastrophic."

"There is the potential in some places for a flood wave up to 14 meters [45 feet] high that could sweep up everything in its path, including people, cars, unexploded ordnance, waste and other hazardous material, further endangering massive population centers that lie in the flood path," she said after a briefing that included U.N. and Iraqi officials.

"Work to stabilize Mosul dam must begin ASAP but all countries must step up to fund relief and public education on evacuation routes," Power added in a tweet.

Even though Power and others called for evacuation and emergency plans to be disseminated among residents along the Tigris, Iraq officials said they cannot share this sort of information.

"We have our own emergency plans — we are not going to leave the people alone," Mahdi Rasheed, the director of the General Dams Directorate in the Ministry of Water Resources, told NBC News. "These plans are secret, I cannot talk about them. The only thing I can add is different units from the military and police will cooperate together to rescue people."

"The dam is not going to collapse," he added, pointing out the government had signed a 18-month contract worth around $296 million with Italian engineering company Trevi for the upkeep of the facility on March 2. At the time, Trevi said it would take several months for the work to start.

While the government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has sought to downplay the risk of a collapse, it has also advised many residents in the heavily populated Tigris valley to move 3.5 miles away from its riverbanks.

Image: Mosul Dam
The Mosul Dam.SAFIN HAMED / AFP - Getty Images, file

Younes Ali, a 40-year-old farmer, told NBC News that the warning did not worry him.

“We are afraid of nothing — these are only rumors,” he said. “Wana is the closest town to the dam, but I am sure that nothing is going to happen.”

Ahmed Saleh, an 18-year-old high school student agreed, saying he believed that the dam was “strong.”

Still, he acknowledged that if it collapsed, "we will not be able to do anything — if we are not notified we will drown.”

Nasrat Adamo, the chief engineer at Iraq's Irrigation Ministry that oversaw the building and upkeep of the country's dams until he fled Iraq in 2006, told NBC News “at least a few hundred thousand people will be killed immediately” if the dam fails.

"The flood wave is so fast that it would arrive to [the city of] Mosul in two hours and the city would be under 25 meters [82 feet] of water," he said, citing the findings of a 1984 study conducted by the Iraqi government.

Image: Tigris River near Wana
Residents of Wana stand near the Tigris River.NBC News

Wana and its people could well be wiped out in this scenario.

“The increasing water level in the river is controlled by the ministry in Baghdad. They coordinate with the people who are responsible for controlling the dam,” said Ali Mohammed Saleh, the mayor of Wana.

While authorities in the town are in constant contact with the dam workers — many of whom live in Wana — residents have not received any advice on what precautions to take or whether to even form evacuation plans, he said.

“We have not received any official announcement or warning from the government concerning precautions," Saleh added.

Image: Ali Mohammed Saleh
Ali Mohammed Saleh is the mayor of Wana.NBC News

He praised the decision to contract Trevi to maintain the facility, but said more information was desperately needed.

“The government should speak to the people about the danger behind the collapse of the dam through its official media or through special meetings with people who live close,” Saleh said.

Hassan, the retired government worker, agreed and called for more planning and help from the government in Baghdad.

“What am I going to do if the dam collapsed? I don’t have a plan,” he said. “The government should deal with this as it deals with the enemy."