Crossroads Asia | Environment | Central Asia

70,000 Evacuated After Breach in Uzbek Dam, Investigation Into Failure Launched

On Friday, the wall of the three-year old Sardoba Reservoir gave way after a week of heavy rains.

Catherine Putz
70,000 Evacuated After Breach in Uzbek Dam, Investigation Into Failure Launched
Credit: Twitter

On Sunday, Uzbekistan’s State Prosecutor announced a criminal probe into “official negligence” after a recently completed dam in the eastern region of Sirdaryo burst.

On May 1, around 6 a.m., after a long rainy week a section of the earthen wall forming the Sardoba Reservoir gave way. The reservoir was completed in 2017, after seven years of construction. The reservoir, 29 meters deep, was designed to hold 922 million cubic meters of water for irrigation of the surrounding agricultural lands in Sirdaryo and Jizzakh regions. 

By Sunday, Uzbek authorities said that 70,000 people had been evacuated from the flooded areas in Uzbekistan. While there were no reported deaths, more than 50 people have been hospitalized. The dam break and resulting flooding also impacted neighboring areas in Kazakhstan’s Turkistan region. Kazakh authorities said more than 5,000 people have been evacuated because of the dam break and the floods have already caused $400,000 in crop damage.

The dam and reservoir were completed just three years ago, suggesting that the failure was the result of either design or construction flaws. It will be interesting to watch who ends up with the blame for the dam’s failure. The project’s construction was begun under the presidency of Islam Karimov, in 2010, but it was overseen by Mirziyoyev, who served as prime minister from 2003 to 2016.

In May 2017, Mirziyoyev — as president — toured the completed reservoir by helicopter and boat. The trip positioned the dam as Mirziyoyev’s project.

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On May 1, just hours after the break, Mirziyoyev again toured the area by helicopter, surveying the damage. On the ground over the weekend, the president met with locals and assured them of the government’s support in recovering their homes and livelihoods. Restoration work has reportedly already begun.

There’s no good time for a dam to break, but the quick evacuation of thousands of people away from the flooded areas during a global pandemic is a terrible moment. While Mirziyoyev isn’t pictured wearing a face mask, nearly everyone else pictured with the president in official media is. 

As of May 4, Uzbekistan had recorded 2,181 cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus that emerged in China in late 2019 and has since spread around the world. Of the 2,181 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Uzbekistan, 10 patients have died. Currently, only 801 cases remain active, according to authorities — the remainder have recovered.

Uzbekistan remains in an official state of emergency, with borders and schools closed, but the authorities have begun to relax some restrictions. For example, on April 29 Mirziyoyev said that vehicle transporting fruits and vegetables between cities and regions could resume travel and citizens would be allowed to drive personal cars during periods of time in the morning and evening to make essential trips.