Italian construction firm Trevi has been awarded a € 273 million (US$ 298 million) contract to repair Iraq’s largest dam, said to be in imminent danger of catastrophic collapse.

The Mosul dam came to the world’s attention last year, when it briefly fell under the control of Islamic State (Isis) and had to be recaptured by Iraqi and Kurdish forces, aided by US jets, bombers and drones.

Up to that point, the 30-year-old dam – already recognised as having been built on an unstable foundation – had been maintained by 300 people, working around the clock in shifts to shore up its construction flaws.

Following the Isis incursion over a year ago, there has been virtually no maintenance work carried out on the dam’s structure or its machinery.

Engineers have reported that the dam’s compromised structure is struggling to cope with rapidly increasing pressure on the dam, as high levels of melting winter snow enter the reservoir. Moreover, sluice gates that would normally ease the pressure are currently jammed shut.

The dam’s former chief engineer, Nasrat Adamo, who now works in Sweden, told The UK’s Guardian newspaper that, since the dam’s recapture, “very few workers have come back. There are perhaps 30 people there now.”

He maintained that the structure would only survive if large teams were brought in to carry out grouting work in the porous bedrock under the dam.

However, he said, “The machines for grouting have been looted. There is no cement supply. They can do nothing. It is going from bad to worse, and it is urgent. All we can do is hold our hearts.”

This comes almost a decade after a letter written jointly by the US ambassador to Iraq and the top American military commander in the country warned the Iraqi prime minister of the dangers of the dam failing. In it they said, “A catastrophic failure of the Mosul dam would result in flooding along the Tigris river all the way to Baghdad.”

On February 28, the Iraqi government urged residents of Mosul, the country’s second-largest city and some 40 km from the dam, to move away from the Tigris river, suggesting a safe distance of 3.5 miles (5.6 km).

Urgent warnings have now been issued by both the Iraqi prime minister and the US embassy in Baghdad, suggesting the collapse of the Mosul dam could create a 20-metre-high flash flood down the Tigris valley, potentially endangering more than half a million lives.

Following talks in New York, between the Italian foreign minister, Paolo Gentiloni and US and Iraqi officials, the Iraqi Ministry of Water Resources oversaw the signing of a contract with Trevi, who will undertake the rehabilitation and maintenance of the dam for 18 months.

The company said the presence of the Italian military forces will ensure the safety of the more than 450 technicians and Trevi staff.

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