In its very first moments of existence, the Usoi dam claimed the lives of an entire village. It was formed during a 1911 earthquake that saw the Usoi settlement buried by a massive landslide that blocked the Murghab River and formed Tajikistan’s Lake Sarez.
At roughly 1,860 feet, the Usoi dam is the world’s highest natural dam. Today there are at least 30 villages in the Bartang Valley, and more scattered across surrounding areas. And they’re all in mortal danger.
If the dam collapses, it could trigger another deadly landslide, but that wouldn’t be the worst of it. The lake’s water could cannon out in a 100-foot-high wave, coursing down established waterways and affecting as many as 5 million people, not only in Tajikistan but also in Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.
The deadliest floods in recorded history occurred in China in 1931, when as many as 4 million people died. But estimates that a Lake Sarez flood would affect 5 million were made two decades ago, and while surveys of the river valley’s population are scarce, records from 2010 indicate that it has increased several times since 1998.
According to a case study from the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, engineering solutions to the dam’s instability are rendered virtually impossible by the remoteness of the lake, which is only accessible by two roads — both closed off for much of the year owing to weather conditions.
However, the Tajik government sees Lake Sarez as a potential economic opportunity. Tajikistan’s President Emomali Rahmon visited Uzbekistan last month for the first time since taking power in 1992, in part to discuss using water from the lake as drinking water for the two countries.
Analysts are worried that the Usoi dam could be a target for terrorists, who with one well-placed bomb could cause untold damage to surrounding communities. Even if the dam doesn’t break, a landslide could cause a wave that triggers mudslides and avalanches onto dozens of local villages.
Terrorism is a question of if; considering the seismic volatility of Tajikistan as a whole, an earthquake is more a question of when.
When Tajikistan was part of the Soviet Union, the situation was monitored by a warning system — but warnings were set up to be sent to Moscow and Dushanbe, Tajikistan’s capital, more than 2,000 and 200 miles away respectively. That system collapsed with the fall of the Soviet Empire.
Ozy.com / ABC Flash Point Nature News 2018.