Tajiks Unable to Cope Alone with Lake Sarez Risk

DUSHANBE, Tajikistan, May 1, 2007 (ENS) - The natural dam holding Lake Sarez in southeastern Tajikistan could break in the event of a major landslide, putting thousands of homes in the region at risk of devastation.

Experts say that in addition to introducing an early warning system and making local residents aware of the problem, serious research should be done to find a long-term solution to the problem. This should involve all four of the countries that would be affected if the lake broke its banks.

Last week, people living in the Bartang valley of the southeastern Badakhshan region received training in emergency procedures for the eventuality that the dam ruptures, the Aziya Plus news agency reported.

The training was part of a World Bank funded project aimed at reducing the risk posed by the lake.

Lake Sarez lake, lying at an altitude of over 3,000 meters (9,842 feet), was formed in 1911 when an earthquake caused a huge landslide which blocked the River Murghab.

lake

Lake Sarez, deep in the Pamir mountains of Tajikistan, was created 90 years ago when a strong earthquake triggered a massive landslide that became a huge dam along the Murghob River, now called the Usoi Dam. (Photo courtesy NASA)
It is thought that another strong earthquake could break this natural dam and set off a huge wave of water that would swamp towns and villages in Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, affecting an area where around six million people live.

Leonid Papyrin, an expert with the Moscow Centre for Regional Geophysical and Geo-ecological Studies, says the dam will inevitably break at some point in the future, but adds that "it is impossible to predict when it will happen Ė tomorrow or in a hundred years."

Papyrin said there is virtually no current research despite the need for extensive studies of seismic activity in the region.

However, Gulsara Pulatova, a United Nations senior advisor on disaster risk reduction, says recent studies show the natural plug is much more stable than anticipated.

"It turns out the risk is not as high as we imagined. Many people exaggerate it, but itís just panic-mongering," she said.

But Pulatova accepts the need for scientists to continue studying the dam, as new leaks keep appearing and earthquakes could cause another landslide.

Sobit Negmatullaev, a seismologist currently working as an adviser on the World Bankís Lake Sarez Risk Mitigation Project, says that an international conference will be held in Dushanbe on May 22-23 to discuss a long-term solution that would entirely eliminate the danger of the lake bursting.

lake

Sixty-one kilometers long, Lake Sarez lies in an earthquake-prone area. (Photo courtesy Government of Tajikistan)
"There are a lot of options - some water can be drawn off the lake, or drained via tunnels, [the water flow] can be regulated, and there are a lot of other ways to make Sarez safe," said Negmatullaev.

Uktam Murtazaev, acting director of the Tajik branch of the Scientific and Information Centre of the Interstate Coordination Water Commission, says the lake will need significant investment and appropriate infrastructure for these measures to work.

Protection measures should be economically viable, he said.

The lakeís waters could be exported as drinking water, used to irrigate three million hectares (7.4 million acres) of land in neighboring Afghanistan, and directed into new reservoirs that would power yet-to-be-built hydroelectric stations on the River Panj, the upper part of the Amu Darya.

Aminjon Huseinov, who is in charge of matters relating to Lake Sarez at the Ministry for Emergency Situations, agrees that huge investment is needed to protect the lake, but says the Tajik government does not have the budget to do this.

"A solution to this problem requires joint efforts from all the Central Asian states, Afghanistan and the international humanitarian organisations operating in our region," he said.

{Published in cooperation with the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, IWPR.}