"Tajikistan: Abundant Water, Scarce Money"

Source: Konstantin Parshin / 6 July 2007 / YaleGlobal Online /  http://yaleglobal.yale.edu/display.article?id=9407  

Lake Sarez in Tajikistan began with an earthquake and a landslide that created a natural dam. Geologists express concern about stability of the dam and explore ways to relieve the water pressure, especially considering that water is in short supply in other parts of Central Asia. One idea is to build a massive pipeline to distribute water to regions in need, and another is constructing a hydroelectric dam to lower water levels in the lake. Analysts urge the government to develop a water-management plan – and point out the need for skilled labor as well as roads, tunnels and other infrastructure to make any project – pipeline, safety-valve tunnel or dam – a reality. – YaleGlobal

Lake Sarez is a natural wonder of Tajikistan, containing 17 billion cubic meters of one of Central Asia’s scarcest commodities – water. Tajik leaders are now searching for a way to unlock the lake’s economic potential.

The lake was created in the early 20th century, when an earthquake touched off a massive landslide in the Bartang Valley in the Pamir Mountains, creating a natural dam across the Murgab River. The mass of soil and rock holding back the water was dubbed the Usoy Damn. The lake extends for over 60 kilometers and in some spots is over 500 meters deep.

In recent years, experts have grown increasingly concerned that the dam could give way, sparking a natural disaster with severe consequences for all of Central Asia. These days, the lake is the subject of intensive monitoring: data on even the slightest fluctuation in the water level, for example, is relayed immediately to central government officials in Dushanbe. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

A late May conference on Lake Sarez, held in Dushanbe, considered ways to minimize the risks of a natural disaster. While conditions at dam appear stable for now, some experts warn that the situation is capable of rapid change. “We have to keep in mind that it [the Usoy Dam] emerged as the result of a powerful earthquake,” said Col. Kadam Maskayev, a department head at the Tajik State Committee for Emergencies and Civil Defense. “[The dam] is situated in a seismically hazardous area, at an altitude of more than three thousand meters above sea level. We cannot underestimate the … dangers of Sarez.”

A $4.3-million program has been implemented with the worst-case scenario in mind. Under the initiative, food, water and medicine have been stockpiled in small warehouses in at-risk villages in the Bartang Valley. Thus, in the event of a dam burst, residents who survived the initial flood, would, in theory, have access to emergency supplies that could sustain them while they remained cut off from the outside world.

Some Tajik officials want to harness the existing risks, and turn them to the country’s advantage. To keep the water pressure against the dam at a stable level, some experts at the May conference proposed the construction of a safety-valve tunnel which could divert water into the Murghab River. Others proposed construction of a hydro-electric plant. A feasibility study suggests the combination of a safety-valve and power plant could cost almost $300 million, and would cause the lake level to drop roughly 50 meters.

Meanwhile, Tajik President Imomali Rahmon recently proposed an alternate idea, the construction of a water pipeline that would serve all of Central Asia. Calling his idea a “great humanitarian project,” he urged the creation of a consortium of Central Asian governments, which would then work with international development agencies to make the pipeline project a reality. “Giving water to thirsty people is considered to be the best deed in the true religion of Islam," Rahmon said during an address to a joint session of parliament on April 30, when he unveiled the water pipeline initiative.

While experts in Dushanbe laud the president’s ambition, they generally believe the pipeline plan, under the present circumstances, is unrealistic. The main obstacle is inter-governmental differences over the use of water resources in the region. Officials have not yet come close to agreeing on a framework for the management of water resources. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Even if consensus could be reached on the practicality of building a Lake Sarez pipeline, myriad smaller obstacles would still stand in the way of construction.

“The joint use of Lake Sarez’s clear water resources is a marvelous idea. However; Tajikistan would hardly attract the [needed] investment,” said a Dushanbe economist, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Moreover, the implementation of such ambitious intentions – apart from money and technical means – would require gigantic human resources.” The economist indicated that Tajikistan suffers from a lack of skilled workers needed to complete such an engineering task.

Building a safety-valve tunnel and a power plant near Lake Sarez might be an even longer shot than the water pipeline. The lack of a developed infrastructure in the area is almost a significant problem. The Usoy Dam is situated about 150 kilometers from the nearest city, Rushan, and much of the distance between the two can be traversed only with a four-wheel-drive vehicle. To build a road that could facilitate power-plant construction would be, in itself, prohibitively expensive, costing hundreds of thousands of dollars per kilometer, according to one estimate.

Konstantin Parshin is a freelance writer based in Tajikistan.

Posted July 2, 2007 © Eurasiane