Apocalypse Looms in Landlocked Central Asia
The earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan last week has killed at least 10,000 people. It is terrible. It may be a sneak preview of something 100 times worse.
The next Big Flood will probably be the worst natural disaster in history. It could easily be avoided.
Yet no one is lifting a finger to save the lives of one to five million people.
Lake Sarez, in the eastern Pamir mountains of eastern Tajikistan, is known to Central Asians as the region's "Sword of Damocles." A mile wide and 600 feet deep, Sarez is one of the biggest high-altitude bodies of water on earth, at an elevation of 11,200 feet.
Lake Sarez was created just over 100 years ago in a remote corner of what was then czarist Russia. On February 18, 1911 a 7.4-scale earthquake, common in the Pamirs, shattered a mountain adjacent to the Murgab River. The resulting landslide formed a half-mile high natural dam that blocked the river. Today the lake is 37 miles long.
Geologists have been warning about the Sarez threat since Soviet times. Now it's urgent. Due to climate change the clock on the Sarez time bomb runs faster every year. During the 1990s the water level was rising eight inches a year. Now it's one or two yards.
Scientists say the dam is going to burst. Whether a quake dislodges a rockslide that creates a wave that crests the dam, or melting glaciers brings the water to the top, computer models predict a devastating inland tsunami sooner rather than later.
Seventeen cubic kilometers of water will be instantly released. A wall of water 800 feet high will cascade down a series of river valleys in four countries.
In 2007 I trekked up to Sarez in order to research a magazine article for Men's Journal. The following is from that piece:
"The 75-mile Bartang Valley, cultural and spiritual heartland of the Ismaili Muslims, would lose 30 villages and 7,000 people. The Bartang empties into the Pyanj, a large river that marks the border with northern Afghanistan, then Uzbekistan, then Turkmenistan. Six hundred miles downstream from Lake Sarez, the flood would cross into another time zone. Even this far downstream, Scott Weber of the U.N. Department for Humanitarian Affairs told New Scientist in 1999, 'the wall of water would still be as high as a two-story house.'"
"The city of Termiz in southern Uzbekistan is home to 140,000 people, the Uzbek-Afghan Friendship Bridge that the Soviets used to invade Afghanistan, and currently a German airbase with 3,000 NATO troops. Termiz would be obliterated. The water would keep going. The Pyanj is a tributary of the Amu Darya, which Alexander the Great knew as the Oxus. The flood path would continue along the Amu Darya, roughly marking the border between Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, before emptying into the shrunken Aral Sea, 1,200 miles downstream of Sarez."
"Five million people--mostly residents of landlocked deserts that routinely reach 125 degrees--would be drowned by snow melt."
That will only be the beginning of the misery.
Most of the arable land in Central Asia will be destroyed by silt. Tens of millions of Turkmen, Uzbeks, Afghans and Tajiks could starve.
This might happen in 10 years. Or next week. It could be happening now.
We can prevent it.
The dam can be shored up. A bypass to release pressure can be tunneled through bedrock around the left flank of the natural dam. Liberal cost estimates of such an engineering project run around $2 billion.
Tajikistan is desperately poor. Over a third of its GDP comes from Tajiks who have moved to other countries and send money back home to their families. The Tajik government doesn't have the cash.
However, $2 billion is small change to Western countries. The U.S. spends that to occupy Iraq and Afghanistan for one week.
When Men's Journal published my piece on Lake Sarez in 2008 I hoped it would prompt the U.S. to act. Aside from preventing the worst natural disaster ever, couldn't we use five million new best friends in the Muslim world?
I sent copies to Presidents Bush and Obama, members of Congress, the U.N., the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, and other international organizations. No one replied.
Interestingly, Japan is one of the few donor countries to have taken interest in Lake Sarez, having coughed up a few million dollars for a monitoring station. But there's still no way to evacuate people living downstream in the event of a breach.
Why don't the U.S. and other wealthy countries care about Lake Sarez? Maybe they're just not paying attention. Also, the Tajiks don't have oil or natural gas.
Whatever the reason, a flood that will make the current disaster in Japan look tiny by comparison is becoming increasingly likely. And it will be mostly our fault.