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Central Asia: Severe Flooding Expected After Harsh Winter

Afghan boy during snowfall in Herat (epa) After a winter many are calling the worst in nearly four decades, Central Asians are dreaming of spring. But the warm weather's arrival this year will bring problems of its own, meteorologists say.

The freezing temperatures have kept snow in the eastern mountains from melting and the area's reservoirs, which are now low, may soon be overflowing causing floods hundreds of kilometers away.

"Snow levels in regions below 2,500 meters are nearly 20 percent more than normal," Anvar Khomidov, the deputy head of Tajikistan's meteorological agency, told RFE/RL's Tajik Service.

"Usually temperatures rise quickly in these regions and the snow that we have will start to melt and the water level will rise in the rivers. If the temperature would rise quickly in April that certainly would lead to flooding."

Khomidov's warning for Tajikistan is already a reality in southern Kazakhstan. The South Kazakhstan Province has been experiencing flooding for more than a week. Zaripa Turysbekova, a spokeswoman for the provincial Emergency Ministry, told RFE/RL's Kazakh Service that three districts in South Kazakhstan Oblast -- Sary-Aghash, Arys, and Ordabasy -- have already suffered floods. Turysbekova said 12,805 people have been effected, 379 houses destroyed, and six schools flooded.

"As far as financial matters are concerned, between February 22 and 26, these people received 18.8 million tenge ($157,000) in aid in the form of food, fuel, etc. In addition, 500 million tenge was allocated from the government initially, and most recently an additional 500 million tenge commitment was made," Turysbekova said.

A River Runs Through It

The flooding in Kazakhstan comes from one of Central Asia's two main rivers -- the Syr-Darya, which originates in Kyrgyzstan. The possible floods that Tajik officials are concerned about involve the other great river of the region -- the Amu-Darya -- which begins in Tajikistan's mountains. Both rivers flow toward the Aral Sea in the west. The water of the Syr-Darya is vital to Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan. The Amu-Darya is a major source of water for Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan.

When winter began, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan used the water in their reservoirs to generate power for homes and businesses. But due to the unusual and sustained cold, the snow did not melt and refill the reservoirs. As a result, there was too little water to generate power, which left residents to cope with severe rationing and in some cases no electricity at all.

All these countries have arid climates and are heavily dependent on agriculture, with 60 percent or more of the people involved in farming or herding. Irrigated water from the rivers is crucial for farmers along the rivers, and flooding of this land by the rivers can have a devastating effect on a country's harvest.

The Kazakh daily "Vremya" reported on March 3 that officials in southern Kazakhstan expect the flooding problem to peak around March 10. The Shardara Reservoir is already overflowing despite efforts to divert some of the water into canals leading into the neighboring Kzyl-Orda Province, which is having its own difficulties with high water. "Vremya" also reported that authorities are now estimating some 200,000 people from southern Kazakhstan will be evacuated temporarily before the water recedes.

The build up of ice along the Amu-Darya -- which creates "ice dams" -- is the immediate problem. Large chunks of ice have floated downstream, crashing into bridges and boats along the way and blocking the flow of water. These temporary ice dams are raising water levels in several places, notably in Turkmenistan, where the army used dynamite to break up the ice dams.

Remembering The Winter of '69

Last month, Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov went to the river city of Turkmenabat (formerly Charjoi) across the river from Uzbekistan. Berdymukhammedov recalled the harsh winter of 1969, the last time the region faced such a large risk of flooding.

"I wanted to come here and see for myself. In 1969, I was here and remember how Charjoi was under water. That is why I came here today," Berdymukhammedov said.

Across the Amu-Darya, in Uzbekistan, environmentalist Kamiljon Nurjonov also recalled the winter of 1969 -- and its aftermath.

"In 1969, the entire city of Novo-Aleksandrovsk (now called Shabaz) was washed away," Nurjonov told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service. "In 1969 it was a cold winter. At that time, because of the danger, our local administration built a dam and water was diverted from Shabaz, but other cities -- Biruni Shabaz and part of Charjoi -- stayed under water. And the town of Chalish is still under water."

Nurjonov said those memories make people anxious now as they see the thermometer finally begin to rise.

He added, however, that there is a noticeable presence from the Emergency Ministry and the army in the area along Uzbekistan's part of the Amu-Darya. He also said a new system of locks and canals built after 1969 to take in excess water and divert it should also help defend the Khorezm area from flooding.

A spokeswoman from Uzbekistan's Emergency Situations Ministry in the Khorezm Province, which also lies along the Amu-Darya, said the river is covered by 30 centimeters of ice, and that dams in the area were being reinforced to prepare for potential flooding.

Troubling Tributaries

These high-risk areas in southern Kazakhstan and along the Amu-Darya in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are located far downstream from where the two rivers start.

Upstream, damage has so far been less but officials and residents in these areas are also bracing for possible floods. Officials in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, for example, are carefully watching the waters of the tributaries of Central Asia's two big rivers.

Kyrgyzstan's independent AKIpress reported on March 3 that Emergency Situations Ministry officials are already in western Kyrgyzstan's Talas Province assessing the situation in case of flooding from one of the Syr-Darya's tributaries, the Naryn River.

Similarly, officials further south in Kyrgyzstan along another tributary -- the Kara-Darya -- are also making preparations, just in case. And along the Amu-Darya tributaries in Tajikistan -- the Surhob, Vakhsh, and Pyanj rivers -- officials say they are taking whatever measures they can.

Officials in Afghanistan are not as worried about the Amu-Darya as they are of rivers in the south.

Eng Wali Mohammad, an Afghan reconstruction expert, told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that officials know the floods are coming but they cannot do much to prevent them.

"Floods are coming once in a century or maybe every 70 years and are a major problem in the country, especially those of big rivers that always have water," Mohammad said. "For example the Helmand River, after joining the Arghandab River, would [be flowing at a rate of] 20,000 cubic meters per second during flooding season. So nothing can prevent it from flooding. It needs time and a dam needs to be constructed; large dams, which could prevent these floods."

In Afghanistan, the lack of any clear division of responsibility for flood-prevention measures is part of the problem, according to Afghan Deputy Minister of Rural Development Asif Rahimi.

"Our experience this year caused serious discussion in the Afghan government, as the capacity in ministries and other government organizations is an important element in preventing damage and especially in combating this emergency situation," Rahimi said. "But preventing floods is not the responsibility of any one ministry. We have already identified some vulnerable areas in all provinces and our preparations continued in those areas but we were not able to list all of these [vulnerable] areas."

The best efforts of wealthy nations are often not enough to cope with the effects of nature. For the relatively poor countries of Central Asia who suffer from both flood and drought, there is not much that can be done except to wait for the inevitable.

(Edige Magauin of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, Tohir Safarov of the Tajik Service, Shukrat Babajanov of the Uzbek Service, and Ahmad Takal of RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan contributed to this report)

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