Fears of Colombia’s largest dam project failing prompts evacuations

By Kristina Pydynowski, AccuWeather senior meteorologist
May 19, 2018, 3:53:08 AM EDT

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Landslides are being blamed for contributing to the construction emergency at Colombia's largest dam project, which led to the evacuation of thousands downstream.

A total of 12 towns over an area in northern Colombia that spans 200 kilometers (125 miles) downstream of the Hidroituango Hydroelectric Project project were evacuated at midweek, according to Colombia Reports.

Local authorities reported that 5,000 people left their homes, but Colombia Reports states that more than 100,000 people live in the evacuation zone.

The evacuation orders were issued after energy company EPM lost control of the water being re-routed as the dam’s construction is being finalized.

The Hidroituango Hydroelectric Dam is being built along the Cauca River near the community of Ituango. It will be Colombia’s largest dam when completed.

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According to Colombia Reports, three pipes were constructed by EPM to allow the water from the Cauca River to bypass the construction.

Undisclosed reasons forced the company to close two of the pipes, while EPM blames a landslide for blocking the third pipe on April 29. Local residents, however, fear that plant material left upstream may have contributed to the blockage.

To alleviate a buildup of water upstream, EPM decided to divert the water through an engine room tunnel. A temporary obstruction occurred in this tunnel on Wednesday, forcing construction workers to abandon the construction site and prompting the evacuation orders downstream.

EPM cited natural causes for the obstruction. Four workers sustained minor injuries when evacuating the dam project.

"As a precaution and maximum alert, the evacuation plan of the communities downstream of the dam was activated [on Wednesday]," EPM posted on their Twitter feed. The evacuation order is in effect until further notice.

Dam location May 17

The location of the Hidroituango Hydroelectric Project in Colombia is shown above. (Image/Google Earth)

There was some optimism on Thursday as water levels in the reservoir and the rate of the water flowing through the tunnel decreased. However, EPM warned residents not to let their guard down.

In the worst-case scenario that the dam fails, EPM reports that a significant amount of water would surge downstream.

"Total evacuation would have to be made on the banks of the Cauca River in the localities of Puerto Valdivia, Tarazá, Cáceres, Caucasia and Nechí," the company said in a press release.

EPM was quick to point out that there are currently no findings of erosion or structural movement at the dam.

Flooding at the dam project already left 600 people homeless this past weekend, according to Colombia Reports. Bridges and schools were also destroyed.

EPM stated that when the construction site becomes more stable, “personnel will return to their work to finish the dam.”

However, downpours may bring more challenges to the construction site and residents.

"Colombia is currently in the midst of its rainy season, which means showers and thunderstorms will occur daily through at least the end of the month," AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Rob Miller said.

"Any of these showers and thunderstorms can produce downpours heavy enough to trigger more flash flooding and landslides," he said.

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