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Rising floodwaters could burst the banks of the US$4bn Ituango hydroelectric dam – Colombia's largest infrastructure project – causing "catastrophic" damage to surrounding towns and the environment, owner EPM said on Thursday.
Authorities have ordered the evacuation of nearly 5,000 people living along the Cauca river in northwestern Antioquia department after admitting their safety could no longer be guaranteed.
"We are working jointly with all institutions on the worst-case scenario, which is the breaking of the dam, which would provoke a huge flood in down-river municipalities," EPM chief executive Jorge Londoño told reporters. "That's a catastrophic scenario," he added.
EPM, a utility company owned by the Medellín city government, said the incident was caused by a "geological fault" that blocked a tunnel used to regulate the flow of water between the dam's spillway and the Cauca river. Relief efforts have been hampered by heavy rain.
Antioquia governor Luis Pérez this week declared a state of emergency and requested help from the national government.
In a statement issued late on Wednesday, President Juan Manuel Santos said he would "spare no effort to protect the population and support them in handling the situation it faces."
Colombia's disaster agency UNGRD said some 4,985 people have been evacuated from their homes so far. Officials warned that 200,000 people in 12 municipalities in Antioquia, Bolívar, Córdoba and Sucre could be affected if the dam ruptures.
Located around 170km northeast of Medellín, Hidroituango is Colombia's largest infrastructure project in investment terms.
The plant, a joint venture between EPM and Antioquia development agency Idea, is expected to supply over 17% of Colombia's electricity when fully operational in 2021. Local officials say work on the project is around 85% complete.
EPM has said the incident will postpone the start of electricity generation at the 2.4GW plant, which had been slated for December.
Late last week, the company released water into the dam's powerhouse after initial contingency plans failed, risking damage to turbines and other machinery. Oswaldo Ordóñez, a geoscience and environmental expert at Colombia's Universidad Nacional, forecast "brutal" financial consequences as a result of the decision.
Angela Montoya, the president of national power generators' association Acolgen, told BNamericas on Wednesday that Colombia's vast reserves of firm energy meant supply would not be threatened by any delays to the project.