Colombia: Mass Evacuations As Fears Grow Over Catastrophic Hidroituango Dam Failure

MEDELLIN, Colombia

Tens of thousands of residents evacuated villages on the banks of Colombia’s Cauca river last week after complications at the partially built Hidroituango dam, 170 kilometers north of Medellin and the country’s largest, led to a state of emergency among fears of a catastrophic burst.

It has been reported that a landslide blocked a tunnel through which waters of the Cauca River were diverted away from construction causing water levels to rise prematurely behind the almost complete structure, and the water now threatens the structural integrity of the dam.

Once complete, Hidroituango is projected to add 17 Per cent more capacity to Colombia’s electricity grid.

Medellin Mayor Federico Gutierrez said May 17 that authorities are preparing for “tsunami-sized waves”, Telesur reported.

"It's a very delicate situation. A possible break or fracture of the dam... would be a huge catastrophe for the whole country," Gutierrez said.

The total population of the departments to be evacuated adds up to 120,000 people, but no deaths or missing people have been reported so far.

At least one village has been destroyed, leaving 600 people homeless. Two bridges, schools and a clinic have also been razed.

"This water could destabilize the dam's infrastructure... by midnight it came again with less force, but constant flow," said Jorge Londoño De la Cuesta, director of the dam project and the Colombian Public Services Company (EPM).

According to EPM, the company that has been building the dam, a landslide caused the blockage in one of the tunnels on the project and when it was cleared, it caused a dramatic rise in the level of the River Cauca, which prompted authorities to go ahead with precautionary evacuations.

EPM has called for international assistance in devising measures to manage river waters that have filled up the dam’s reservoir.

EPM has claimed that the disaster was caused by an “unpredictable geological condition,” but local environmentalists have blamed EPM.

According to local NGO Rios Vivos, “the obstruction was caused by the large amount of cut plant material that was not collected by EPM and was washed away by the river”.