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Last Updated: Saturday, 30 August, 2003, 04:09 GMT 05:09 UK
Central Asia's water worries in spotlight
Lake Sarez
Lake Sarez is situated in an active earthquake zone
Experts meeting in Central Asia are debating water issues amid controversy over the possibility of catastrophic flooding from a huge mountain lake located high in the Pamir mountains.

In early August, an expedition by civil defence experts and Russian mountaineers concluded that an earthquake in nearby Afghanistan could destroy the natural barrier which holds back Lake Sarez, in south-eastern Tajikistan.

Fears have been expressed that the resulting flood could surge down the Panj and Amu Darya rivers, devastating large areas of inhabited land and displacing hundreds of thousands of people.

Lake Sarez was itself created by a major earthquake in 1911. Its waters are held back by a natural barrier of rocks and boulders over 500m (1640ft) high.

Danger 'overstated'

The subject is high on the agenda as delegates from Central Asian and international organisations meet in Tajikistan this weekend for the Dushanbe Fresh Water conference.

Dr Sabit Negmatullayev, an academic at Tajikistan's National Academy of Sciences, has told the Itar-Tass news agency that the risks have been overstated.

"A danger of the barrier's collapse does exist, since the lake area is seismically active, but the risks are much smaller than scientists earlier believed," he said.

Dr Negmatullayev said that research data accumulated over the years showed that the natural dam containing the lake is stable.

Lake Sarez is estimated to contained 16 million cubic metres of fresh water.

A key issue being discussed at the Dushanbe conference is the complex one of how states in Central Asia can cooperate to share and manage their water resources.

Tajikistan might be the poorest country in Central Asia - but it does have a lot of water.

Two of the mightiest rivers in the region rise in the Pamir and Tian Shan, the mountain ranges where Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and China meet.

Shared

The waters flowing west from these mountains are shared between Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Afghanistan.

Experts say there would be more than enough to go round if the resources were managed properly. But the states downstream take a huge amount of water for irrigation, so by the time the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers get through the desert regions, there is only a trickle to feed the Aral Sea.

The sea has shrunk to less than one half of its size in 1960, bringing environmental and economic catastrophe to the surrounding region.

Aral Sea
Aral Sea - once the world's fourth largest lake
Upstream, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan depend on their mountain streams to generate electricity. They barter hydropower in summer for coal and gas in winter from neighbouring states.

If the barter arrangements do not work, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have to generate hydroelectric power in the winter.

The result is that excess water is sent through the turbines in winter, flooding areas in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Then there is not enough water left over for irrigation in summer.

Experts say that what is needed is for the countries in the region to integrate their power market, rather than operate bilaterally on a barter basis.

Another focus of the conference is health and sanitation, a major problem in a region where many people have no access to clean drinking water.

BBC Monitoring, based in Caversham in southern England, selects and translates information from radio, television, press, news agencies and the Internet from 150 countries in more than 70 languages.


SEE ALSO:
Fresh alert over Tajik flood threat
03 Aug 03  |  Asia-Pacific


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