Colonel Kadam Maskaev from the Tajik emergency agency has a unique job: He monitors the highest natural dam in the world. Risks
“Back in 1913 my great grandfather was monitoring Lake Sarez and major downstream floods. Five generations on and I have inherited the same job,” said Maskaev, who is deputy head of the Tajik emergency agency’s Usoy unit.
“My grandfathers were monitoring the lake visually. I am monitoring it using modern equipment provided by various donors,” he told IRIN at a forum in Dushanbe which brought together about 80 participants from the government, the UN and the non-governmental organization (NGO) community.
The two-day `Second International Conference on Lake Sarez Problems’ co-organized by the United Nations International Strategy on Disaster Reduction (ISDR) and the Tajik government ends on Wednesday.
Lake Sarez was created in 1911 when an enormous landslide caused by an earthquake in the Pamir Mountains of eastern Tajikistan buried Usoy village and blocked the Murgab River.
Within two years the river formed a lake about 60km long, containing close to 17 cubic kilometres of water. The natural dam, which retains the lake name, Usoy, lies at an altitude of 3,200 meters. At over 550 metres high and some 2km long, it is the tallest natural dam in the world.
If Lake Sarez were to flood, the impact might be devastating
Such an event could trigger an enormous wave, which would submerge the natural dam and possibly wash it away. Impact projections suggest the flood could affect roughly five million people living along the Bartang, Pyanj and Amu-Darya rivers, a path traversing Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.
“If Lake Sarez were to flood, the impact might be devastating,” said Hadi Husani, acting mission head of FOCUS, a US-based humanitarian NGO.
Early warning system
Lake Sarez is monitored from a small facility near the dam that had a monitoring and early warning system installed in 2004. Parts of the monitoring system are used to raise the alarm and are integrated into an early warning system designed to alert villagers downstream of any disaster.
The local population have been trained in the early warning system and disaster preparedness programmes. Each district has established its own rapid response committee. Every village has its own emergency evacuation map. Safe assembly areas have also been identified.
“There are VHF radios in each community. In an emergency the community leader will tell the villages to evacuate. Evacuation zones are equipped with first aid kits,” said Husani.
In case of flooding, the first waves from the Sarez could reach the nearest village in 25 minutes, and the furthest place, districts bordering Uzbekistan, would be reached in 38 hours.
“Training and practice by the local population shows that the population of those villages can evacuate in 12 minutes, said Maskaev.
Even if you stop the oldest man working on his land in the area and ask him what happens if Lake Sarez floods, he will tell you the exact paths leading to a safe area and the time he has to make it there, Goulsara Pulatova, a senior adviser for UN/ISDR Central Asia, said in Dushanbe.
Twenty-eight villages in the Bartang valley and Rushan District of Gorno-Badakhshan in the east of the country have been identified as the most vulnerable if the lake were to flood. “Thus the population of these villages have been trained many times on the early warning practices,” Pulatova added.
For several decades the average level of the lake had been rising by about 20cm a year. Over the past few years, the level has been increasing one metre annually. Experts say this is a consequence of global warming, as glaciers are melting more quickly.
However, said Sobit Negmatullaev, chairman of the International Panel of Independent Experts for the Lake Sarez Risk Mitigation Project, funded by the World Bank, “there is much potential to turn devastation into benefit. Lake Sarez contains 17 cubic kilometres of pure water that could be used as drinking water. Another option is to build hydro power stations there.”