Print
IHA/680
21 June 1999

FIVE CENTRAL ASIAN COUNTRIES AT RISK OF FLOOD FROM WORLD'S LARGEST DAM

21 June 1999


Press Release
IHA/680


FIVE CENTRAL ASIAN COUNTRIES AT RISK OF FLOOD FROM WORLD'S LARGEST DAM

19990621

Experts Urge Preparation to Avert Worst Natural Disaster

GENEVA, 18 June (UN Information Service) -- International experts just returned from Tajikistan have concluded that early warning systems and preparedness for a breach of the Sarez Dam in the remote Pamir Mountains of Central Asia could mitigate what is potentially the worst natural disaster in human history. Scientists believe that while a total breach of the 17 cubic kilometre-capacity dam is unlikely, even an overtopping caused by a landslide into the lake would destroy the lives and livelihoods of tens of thousands, devastate unique habitats and species, and make entire mountain areas uninhabitable for generations.

Formed nearly 90 years ago when an earthquake caused a massive landslide, Lake Sarez is bounded by a natural dam larger than any that is manmade. Flooding from a failure of the dam would send millions of tonnes of water, rock debris and sediment down the Bartang, Panj and Amu Darya rivers, possibly as far as the Aral Sea, affecting millions of people in Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. Also at risk is the unique biodiversity of the Pamirs and several natural reserves in western Tajikistan, home to internationally protected species such as the extremely rare Snow Leopard and the Bukhara Red Deer. The Bartang Valley alone shelters more than 1,200 different plant species, many found nowhere else in the world.

The inter-agency mission, organized under the auspices of the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction (IDNDR), included representatives from the World Bank, United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)/Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) Environment Unit, OCHA Tajikistan and Focus Humanitarian Assistance (FOCUS), an emergency response agency affiliated with the Aga Khan Development Network, as well as representatives of the Governments of Tajikistan and Germany.

According to University of Utah Professor Don Alford, a consultant with IDNDR and FOCUS who led the team, "Lake Sarez represents what is probably the most complex disaster mitigation and prevention problem being faced today. There is still a lot to be done to arrive at a final solution", he said, "but some basic measures need to be taken immediately to reduce the threat of what could be the worst disaster in recorded history".

- 2 - Press Release IHA/680 21 June 1999

After examining the geology and stability of the dam area, the potential for alerting and evacuating downstream villages, the accessibility options to the site and the social and environmental implications of a disaster, the mission recommended: the establishment of an effective monitoring and early warning system, further in-depth risk assessment studies of the dangerous right bank slope, a feasibility study for increasing the freeboard of the lowest part of the dam to prevent overtopping, the further development of a Geographical Information System (GIS) for the lake, and training in disaster preparedness for the villagers downstream.

The IDNDR Programme Forum 1999, which will be held in Geneva from 5 to 9 July, will include a briefing for donors to seek the engagement of the international community towards the implementation of those recommendations.

* *** *

For information media. Not an official record.