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Thousands in Latvia on alert as icy water threatens to breach dam

With a dam built to protect their homes threatened by a mass of ice slowly heading its way, residents of the Latvian town of Jekabpils braced themselves for potential flooding on Saturday.

Officials have been raising the alarm about the looming threat for several days in Jekabpils, a town about 120km southeast of the capital Riga on the Daugava river with around 21,000 residents.

Usually, the river would be ice-bound in winter until spring. However, this year it has produced an icy mass which is pushing water levels up as well as putting pressure on the dam.

While the situation remains stable, it still poses a risk, local officials said on Sunday. From a walkway on top of the dam, Jekabpils residents watched the ice drift downstream on Saturday.

“I won’t deny it is very worrying,” said businessman Martins Lauva, who had returned to the town to talk his family into moving to a safer location. He felt climate change was the cause of the phenomenon, which weather experts have also claimed was caused by swings in temperature. “Here we are – in January, endangered by floods. This is most definitely an anomaly of nature.”

On January 1, Latvia experienced temperatures as high as 11.7 degrees Celsius, according to the LSM news portal run by Latvia’s public broadcaster.

Areas upstream of the town have already been flooded, as they are not protected by the dam.

“Like a bulldozer”

In a pre-emptive move, a shelter has been opened in a local school for citizens should they want to take cover if the worst comes to the worst. Residents have also been advised to evacuate.

Emergency services and Latvia’s Home Guard have been called in to help drain water from flooded areas and shore up the dam with sandbags.

Raivis Ragainis, Jekabpils mayor, said he feared what would happen if the dam gave in and the ice flowed into the town. Headed that it would be a wave that “goes like a bulldozer and wipes away everything”.

“It is not about whether we hide on the second floor or we live on the ground floor, or we managed to escape, it would just push away the houses,” Ragainis said.

Although water levels dropped on Sunday, they have remained critically high at 30 centimetres (12 inches) above the level considered dangerous, LSM reported. Latvia’s government held a crisis meeting on Sunday morning to discuss the situation.

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