Crossroads Asia

Mudslides Make a Mess in Central Asia

Higher than average temperatures have led to increased glacial melt and dangerous mudslides across the region.

Mudslides Make a Mess in Central Asia
Credit: NASA Earth Observatory images by Jesse Allen, using Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey.

In recent weeks both Kazakhstan and Tajikistan have been subjected to damaging floods and mudslides–thought not because of rain. Instead, unusually high temperatures have led to increased glacial melt in Central Asia’s mountains.

In Kazakhstan, a glacial lake upstream from Almaty on the Kargalinka River burst, sending “water, mud, boulders, and other debris rushing down the river toward Almaty.” Farther down river, a dam held most of the water back but a mudslide reached Almaty’s outlying towns, reportedly injuring 76 people, damaging over 120 homes and forcing nearly 1,000 people to evacuate. According to NASA’s Earth Observatory, which provides satellite images and analysis of climate and environment events around the world, “the Kargalinka is not the only river in the area that faces the threat of glacial lake outburst floods. In 2012, an analysis of satellite imagery of the northern Tian Shan pointed out 47 potentially dangerous lakes in the region.”

NASA’s satellite images show the growth of a melt pond south of Almaty and the widening of the river as mud and water rushed northward (the images have been inverted so that south is at the top and north the bottom). Toward the bottom of the images the dam holding back most of the water becomes more prominent as water backs up behind it. RFE/RL reports that the dam is now holding back 30,000 cubic meters of water and some fear it may break.

The situation is much more drastic in mountainous Tajikistan, where at least a dozen people have been killed this month in flash floods and mudslides. Floods and mudslides have occurred all over Tajikistan, but have been particularly devastating in the country’s eastern region, the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region. On July 16, the UN country team in Tajikistan reported, mudflows blocked the Gund River and created an artificial lake. While no casualties were reported at the time the UN said that more than 80 percent of the communities in GBAO were without electricity due to infrastructure damage.

IWPR reported that villagers were running out of food supplies and feared what would happen if the artificial lakes created by the mudslides burst. The regional director for IWPR, Abakhon Sultonnazarov, was in the area when the flooding occurred and says villagers think the government response has been too slow. IWPR says the region has “no early warning system for disasters,” and that rescue services are underprepared:

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“Not a single bulldozer could be found in this area when the flooding started,” said Zoirsho, a 40-year-old resident of Vanj district. “The ministry for emergency situations has neither machinery nor any other specialized rescue equipment. How is that acceptable?”

While villagers told IWPR that help was slow in coming, a number of aid organizations and others lined up with pledges of assistance. As Eurasianet reported, Tajikistan struggles to respond to disasters and “relies heavily in the Pamirs on the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), with which it has often strained relations.” On July 28, Asia-Plus reported that the Russian Air Force has airlifted more than 4 tons of humanitarian aid to GBAO, which sounds like a significant amount–but in early May when mudslides killed more than 20 in Tajikistan Russia airlifted 80 tons of aid to impacted areas.

Tajik President Emomali Rahmon has promised to rebuild destroyed homes, but as Eurasianet notes “there is no public debate about authorities’ emergency response.”