A glacier lake outburst flood (GLOF) in Central Asia created extensive property damage and displaced large numbers of local residents, though fortunately it did not cause any fatalities. The lake broke in the Pamir Mountains of the remote Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO), a region of eastern Tajikistan, earlier this month.
High temperatures in the first weeks of July led to significant glacier melting and high levels of snowmelt. A massive flood on 16 July down a side-canyon led to a mudflow that blocked the Gunt River. The dammed waters formed a new lake, which threatens to create a second flood, possibly more destructive than the first.
The Pamir Mountains are vulnerable to GLOFs. They have very high rates of uplift, because of their origin at the collision zone between the Indian and Eurasian plates. With most of the area above 4000 meters, many ridges above 5000 meters, and several peaks reaching over 7000 meters, the mountain belt integrates a large number of glaciated areas. It contains the Fedchenko Glacier, which, at 77 kilometers, is the longest glacier in the world outside polar regions. These glaciers descend into narrow steep incising valleys, where agriculture and human settlements are concentrated at elevations of 2000 to 3500 meters, in irrigation-dependent semi-arid areas which lie in the rain shadow of the high mountains. Populations are concentrated close to the rivers, often building settlements and locating agricultural fields on the narrow flat sections along river terraces and ancient landslides. These areas are themselves often the product of sediments deposited in floods and catastrophic events in earlier times, and hence subject to floods.
Damage from the most recent flood was extensive. Over 65 houses and one school were destroyed in three villages. Twelve more houses remain under threat. Electric lines from a major hydropower station were damaged, leaving the population of the entire region without power for five days, while the 30,000 residents of the provincial capital of Khorog were without power for two days. Many fields and orchards were damaged.
Dilovar Butabekov of the University of Central Asia in Khorog and President of the Ismaili Council for GBAO wrote to GlacierHub on 29 July, describing the washed-out sections on major and minor highways and the partial or total damage to several pedestrian and motor bridges. These impacts on the transportation network are hindering the delivery of relief supplies. Butabekov stated that the “temporary solution for small tonnage vehicles” was to send them on long routes on secondary roads that wind their way through the mountainous terrain. He added that many villages remain completely isolated; they can be reached only by helicopter.
Relief efforts have come largely from government agencies, particularly the national Commission for Emergency Situations, and from a major NGO, Focus Humanitarian Assistance (FOCUS), an organization within the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN). The AKDN and the national government sent tents, blankets and drinking water by helicopter the day after the flood. FOCUS and the Tajik Red Crescent Society have set up tent camps for the population, approximately 10,000 individuals, who have been evacuated from the areas at greatest risk of additional floods, and sent food and medical supplies as well. Additional supplies have been promised by a number of other organizations, including the United Nations World Food Programme, the Mountain Societies Development Support Programme of the AKDN, and the German NGO Welthungerhilfe/Agro Action. These groups are networked through the United Nation’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and its Rapid Emergency Assessment and Coordination Team (REACT) , which has worked actively to seek additional aid and to support its distribution.
Local residents remain concerned about the risk of additional floods. The newly formed lake is unstable, threatening a number of villages and the provincial capital of Khorog, where the University of Central Asia is building a university campus. Relief efforts are hindered by the difficult topography of the region and the scarcity of helicopters to reach villages cut off by the GLOF. Some residents are improvising efforts on their own. As one villager told Nilufar Karimova, a reporter for ReliefWeb, “Local lads from the district cut down trees on their own and took other measures to strengthen the river banks and protect their homes.”
If all goes well, the aid which has been requested will be provided, bringing relief to the affected population and supporting the region’s recovery. The long experience and strong local ties of AKDN in this region suggest that they will be able to help residents in both the short and long run. Moreover, events such as these are not limited to Tajikistan. Ryskeldi Satke wrote to GlacierHub about a GLOF in nearby Kazakhstan in recent weeks, showing the importance of this hazard across Central Asia. Experiences such as these may promote coordination between different countries of early warning systems and disaster risk reduction activities in regions vulnerable to GLOFs.