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Central Asia: A Looming Ecological Apocalypse

Prague, 23 May 1997 (RFE/RL) -- People in the countries of Central Asia are living their lives as best they can in peace and war.

In Tajikistan the politicians are arguing about power sharing.

In Afghanistan the bloodshed continues more or less as usual.

In Turkmenistan the authorities claim to be building a new Kuwait.

Uzbekistan is preoccupied with attracting foreign investment.

In these four countries, only a comparative handful of people stop to think about the apocalypse above their heads. Every time there is an earthquake in the region, Tajik and Russian scientists and ecologists shiver while they await the news: is Sarez Lake, the "hanging bomb," holding steady?

"This is the beauty, which can kill the world" says Abduhakim Shukurov, former head of Tajikistan national committee of hydrometeorology, paraphrasing the words of Dostoevskiy.

An RFE/RL correspondent who has visited the lake says it really is beautiful, a huge and shining mirror surrounded by brilliant snow-capped summits. Millions and millions of tons of water hang over the Murgob valley at an altitude of over 3260 meters.

Sarez, though not man-made, is not a "natural" lake either, if that word implies permanence and stability. It appeared after an earthquake in the Central Pamir ranges in February 1911. According to the Tajik scientist Oleg Barotov, several cubic kilometres of the Mizkol Range slid down, burying the village of Usoi and damming the Murgob River Valley. Presently Sarez Lake is more than 60 kilometers long, the height of its dam is 550 meters.

Because of the considerable seismic activity in the region the situation in the valley was judged to be important even by the Russian Tsarist authorities. According to a Russian scientist who today monitors Sarez Lake full time, the first permanent lake observation point was established in 1913 by a Lieutenant-Colonel Shpinko, and the first observer was called Kurbanbekov. In 1934, a lake researcher named Afanasyev warned of the danger of erosion which could lead to the collapse or partial collapse of the dam.

The disintegration of the earth wall would be a tragedy on a grand scale for Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Scientists estimate that the resulting inundation would destroy everything in its way in those countries and would approach the north-eastern regions of Iran. The height of the water wave across this great distance would range from 25 metres to 3 meters.

Many experts have warned the authorities to take steps to reduce the level of water held in the lake, thereby easing the pressure on the dam. Barotov writes that to avoid possible catastrophe, the water level in the lake must be lowered by 150-200 meters.

During the Soviet era, Moscow and Dushanbe made many joint plans and preparations to reduce the water level. Even World War II did not interrupt the Soviet investment in resolving this problem. Researchers say stabilization of the Sarez Lake level was achieved in 1945, when the surface area of the lake reached 88 square kilometers, with an approximate volume of 16,000 million cubic meters. The average depth is 185 meters and the maximum depth is more than 500 meters.

From 1975 to 1984 the USSR Council of Ministers, the Tajik government, and the USSR ministry of energy and water resources issued several decrees relating to the lake. In 1980 the Tajikistan committee of hydrometeorology established an automatic radio notification system, which can send signals by satellite to government offices in Dushanbe about any movement in the dam.

A panel of scientists has in recent years proposed a comprehensive plan for reducing the water level. This foresees using the lake waters for hydroelectric power production. However discussions about financing the plan coincided with the collaps of the Soviet Union. And now the government of independent Tajikistan has no resources to do anything -- even though recent investigations confirm the unstable condition of the dam. To make matters worse, the radio notification system no longer works. Only last month, the Tajik government founded a special Sarez division inside the Committee of Emergency Situations.

At the recent Tashkent summit of Central Asian leaders, Tajikistan proposed a bold plan to resolve both the Sarez problem and the Aral Sea ecological disaster. The plan envisages tranferring the Sarez water resources, via natural and man-made channels, to the parched Aral Sea regions. But this plan demands huge investments not only from Central Asian states, but from the international community. In the event only Uzbekistan showed interest to the Tajik plan. It took the initiative to study the Sarez problem so as to inform itself on possible future action.