Thursday 5 August 2004

TAJIKISTAN: World Bank installs early warning system at Lake Sarez

[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]
The World Bank Group

ANKARA, 5 Aug 2004 (IRIN) - Special equipment for monitoring the situation around Lake Sarez in eastern Tajikistan is now being installed by a World Bank project working on risk mitigation in the area, a step to ensure early warning for the vulnerable population in the region.

"This equipment is for monitoring the situation around Lake Sarez, the dam and the Bartang valley, including seismic activity, landslides, water, wind speed and so on," Rustam Bobojonov, a coordinator for the World Bank's Lake Sarez risk mitigation project, told IRIN from the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, on Thursday.

"It is aimed at ensuring early warning for the Tajik government, including the emergency ministry, international community and the residents of all the villages in the Bartang Valley about the possible risk."

His comments followed the recent procurement of a special satellite monitoring and early warning system worth some US $1.5 million, now being installed in the area.

The Lake Sarez risk mitigation project, worth more than US $4 million, aims to help alert and prepare vulnerable people in case of a disaster associated with flooding from the lake, as well as other frequent natural hazards such as mudslides, rock falls, avalanches and seasonal floods.

Lake Sarez was created in 1911 when an enormous landslide caused by an earthquake in the Pamir Mountains of eastern Tajikistan blocked the Murgab river. Within two years the river soon formed a lake approximately 60 km in length, containing close to 17 cubic kilometres of water. The natural dam which retains the lake, named Usoi, is located at an altitude of 3,200 meters. With a height of over 550 meters and a length of some 2 km, it is the tallest natural dam in the world.

At present, the lake surface is approximately 50 metres below the lowest point on the crest of the Usoi dam, and the water level is rising at an average of 20 cm per year, based on the most recent measurements. Some reports warn that, should a strong earthquake occur in the vicinity of the lake, the dangerous "right bank", a partially collapsed body of earth and rock with a mass of roughly 3, might fall into the lake.

Such an event could trigger an enormous wave which would overtop the natural dam and possibly wash it away. Impact projections suggested that 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.

"But this is in case the dam disappears in one second and some 17 of water rushes immediately down. However, the latest surveys indicate that only the upper part of the dam could possibly wash away due to the water overflow that could happen as a result of the "right bank" landslide. If that is the case, possible consequences could be dangerous but not on the scale that some newspapers or other sources claim," Bobojonov stressed.

According to the World Bank, the system will be able to sense the beginning of an outburst flood or a substantial increase in danger, send a signal that will trigger alarms in the most vulnerable villages below the dam and provide long-term data needed to understand better the technical options for reducing the likelihood of a flood.

"Actually, no human life will be at risk [in case of flooding] because if the situation worsens then signals will be immediately sent to all the villages in the area, and the people who underwent emergency training know which emergency methods to employ to reach safe areas where necessary supplies of food and other items are stored," Bobojonov explained.

There are up to 20,000 people living in villages below the dam, but not all of them were vulnerable to possible flooding, he added, noting that the population along the Pyanj and Amu-Darya rivers would have enough time to take necessary measures to avoid the risk. [ENDS]