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Hazards from Sarez Lake, an issue still unsolved in Central Asia, Tajikistan

Lake Sarez, deep in the Pamir mountains of Tajikistan, was created 100 years ago when a strong earthquake triggered a massive landslide that, in turn, became a huge dam along the Murghob River, now called the Usoi Dam or Sarez Lake.


In the early 20th century exactly in the winter of 1911, a huge rockslide in the Pamir Mountains of southeastern Tajikistan completely blocked the Murgab River creating a huge "natural" dam creating a big hazard doiwnstream. That river tributary reaches to Amy Darya River Basin. Before that disaster, there was a village named Usoi and then the Landslide entirely buried that village.  Now in most literatures, it is known as a Usoi Dam. That landslide has a total volume estimated at approximately 2 km3, with a maximum height above the original valley floor of 500-700m. By passing time a lake quickly formed behind the Usoi dam, rising at a rate of around 75m/yr during the first few years. 

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Basic Data
Name of conflict:Hazards from Sarez Lake, an issue still unsolved in Central Asia, Tajikistan
State or province:Gorno Badakhshan Autonomy Oblast
Location of conflict:Tajikistan, Pamir, Rushan district, Bartang valley
Accuracy of locationMEDIUM (Regional level)
Source of Conflict
Type of conflict: 1st level:Water Management
Type of conflict: 2nd level :Dams and water distribution conflicts
Interbasin water transfers/transboundary water conflicts
Specific commodities:Tourism services
Project Details and Actors
Project details:

After that terrible strong tremor felt in the Bartang river at deep midnight (at 23:15) on February 6, 1911 immediately, the scientific circles of what would be the Soviet Union after 1917 (Tajikistan was part of SU) began exploring the stability of the new dam and a probability of a catastrophic flood from the growing lake. It is worth noting that forecasts - both favourable and terrifying – were made not only by scientists and experts but also by people with little in common with the problem. Hereby we name some important figures that had done some work in this area, among the early investigators of Lake Sarez are the names of P. Zaimkin, G. A. Schpilko, D.D. Bukinich, I. A. Preobrazhenski, V. S. Kolesnikov, O. K. Lange, V. A. Afanasiev, V. I. Razek and many others.

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Project area:800,000
Type of populationRural
Affected Population:5 million people in the banks of the river
Start of the conflict:01/05/1950
Relevant government actors:Central State of the government of Tajikistan.
Tajikistan's Committee for Emergency Situations.
Government GBAO.
Afghanistan government.
United Nations Strategy for Disaster Reduction UN/ISDR
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:FOCUS
Conflict and Mobilization
IntensityLOW (some local organising)
Reaction stageUnknown
Groups mobilizing:Indigenous groups or traditional communities
Informal workers
Landless peasants
Local government/political parties
Social movements
Trade unions
Ethnically/racially discriminated groups
Local scientists/professionals
Religious groups
Forms of mobilization:Development of a network/collective action
Involvement of national and international NGOs
Land occupation
Street protest/marches
Property damage/arson
Appeals/recourse to economic valuation of the environment
Impacts of the project
Environmental ImpactsVisible: Air pollution, Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Floods (river, coastal, mudflow), Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation, Noise pollution, Soil erosion, Waste overflow, Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality, Groundwater pollution or depletion, Large-scale disturbance of hydro and geological systems, Reduced ecological / hydrological connectivity
Potential: Desertification/Drought, Fires, Food insecurity (crop damage), Genetic contamination, Soil contamination, Other Environmental impacts
Other Environmental impactsForest, croplands, and garden will be destroyed. Also, natural reserves (Zapovednik ) are threatened by dam failure.
Health ImpactsVisible: Accidents, Malnutrition
Potential: Exposure to unknown or uncertain complex risks (radiation, etc…), Mental problems including stress, depression and suicide, Deaths, Other environmental related diseases
Socio-economical ImpactsVisible: Displacement, Lack of work security, labour absenteeism, firings, unemployment, Loss of livelihood, Loss of traditional knowledge/practices/cultures, Violations of human rights, Loss of landscape/sense of place
Potential: Increase in violence and crime, Social problems (alcoholism, prostitution, etc..)
Other socio-economic impactsloss of money in bank and valuable documents.
Project StatusUnknown
Conflict outcome / response:Corruption
Under negotiation
Application of existing regulations
Project temporarily suspended
Development of alternatives:The governmental institutions and the central state are setting up a plant to negotiate we the countries that are suffering from a freshwater deficiency. Governor of GBAO and Tajikistan figured out that the only way of reducing the hazard is to sell the water to dry region for irrigation purpose and to supply the residence with fresh water. In addition, to apply some of the UN sustainable development goals in terms of access to fresh water, reduction risk in under disaster areas and life security, the concerned organization from all scale can take it as a vital issue and fulfil their responsibility.
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:Not Sure
Briefly explain:Due to the lack of financial support the central state is not able to make any suitable approach to tackle this issue. Stakeholders are trying to find out a way managing a plant to offer on the global scale, in order to hook the international agencies to support them. They claim that it is a regional matter and the dangerous region of the neighbor countries should contribute their effort.
Sources and Materials
Related laws and legislations - Juridical texts related to the conflict

[3] Tajikistan: Conference Highlights Lake Sarez Risk
[click to view]

[4] Tajikistan / Economy / Orienbonk denies reports about the agreement between it and Chinese company on the sale of water of Lake Sarez as baseless
[click to view]

References to published books, academic articles, movies or published documentaries

[2] The UN Strategy for Disaster Reduction (ISDR)

Sarez Lake: the latest achievements and unsolved problems
[click to view]

[1]Sarez Lake problem: ensuring long-term safety - ResearchGate
[click to view]

UN SDR 2000. Usoi Landslide Dam and Lake Sarez. An Assessment of Hazard and Risk in the Pamir Mountains of Tajikistan.
[click to view]

Links to general newspaper articles, blogs or other websites

[5] Tajikistan’s Sarez Dam Spillway Threatens 320 Afghan Villages
[click to view]

Related media links to videos, campaigns, social network

An Earthquake at Lake Sarez in 2004
[click to view]

[6] António Guterres, the ninth Secretary-General of the United Nations in Sarez lake. Bartang, Pamirs
[click to view]


[7] Tajikistan, Pamir HighWay


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Other documents

Sarez Lake Freshwater of Sarez Lake can supply the Asian region for a long time but has a bit threat to Central Asia. Our task to change this natural hazard to natural the source of life.
[click to view]

Meta information
Contributor:Fayzmamad Davlatbekov, [email protected]/EnvJustice, ICTA-UAB
Last update11/08/2018
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