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Tajikistan's Pamir Region: Forever on the Brink of Disaster?


Transport-dush-khorog” by ​wikipedia user Alj87. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.

This is a version of an article originally written in Catalan.

Fatal landslides happen so often in Tajikistan, the world media rarely stops to cover them.

On December 7 it was a bit different, after the remote Pamir region in the former Soviet republic was struck by an earthquake of 7.2 on the Richter scale, whose epicentre was just 22 kilometres from a seismically vulnerable mountain lake.

Nevertheless, journalists soon lost interest once the damage had been done and the task of restoring hundreds of houses fell to authorities, organizations working in the area and local residents.

According to the impoverished country's emergency situations committee, the earthquake caused two deaths — both the result of landslides triggered by the quake — and completely destroyed 237 homes.

The most affected area was the hard-to-access valley of Bartang, where 214 of the houses were located and where the population mobilized to reopen communication links with the area's only artery: the world-famous Pamir Highway.

Wikipedia image of Pamir Highway. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Wikipedia image of Pamir Highway. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The region west of the Tajik Pamirs where most of Tajikistan's population lives is inhabited by people of Iranian origin.

Unlike the rest of the country where people adhere to the Sunni faith, the inhabitants of the Pamirs are mostly followers of Pamir Isma'ilism, a branch of Shiism associated with the famous spiritual leader the Aga Khan.

The Aga Khan Foundation has dedicated much effort to developing and educating Ismaili communities scattered around the world, including in Kenya, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Madagascar.

This foundation has often complemented, or even substituted, the Tajik government in its development work in the Pamirs.

Tajikistan is the poorest post-Soviet republic and money sent by people who emigrated to work mainly in Russia equates to almost half of GDP.

It is estimated that 60% of the population lives below the poverty line.

Some organizations related to the Pamir region have launched campaigns to collect funds to cover emergency food and warm clothes to people who lost everything in the latest disaster.

They include a page on gofundme and Bartang Has a Future.

Many of the contributions are being channeled through the local NGO ‘OUR’, created only a year ago by youth in the city of Khorog to provide a safe passage for aid in a country where the government is often accused of stealing development money.

Other than emergency situations, the NGO is creating a network of volunteer teachers and trainers. Staff work on a completely voluntary basis.

“All our activities are transparent, and you can track up to the last cent of all aid received through our Facebook page (OO “OUR”),” writes one of the group's leaders Daler Nazarshoev.

“A total of 600 people have been resettled…People who have lost their homes are living in summer tents despite temperatures reaching -22 degrees celsius,” writes Nazarshoev.

“Until the summer months it will be impossible for us to dedicate ourselves fully to rebuilding homes. For this reason, we study the possibility of buying Kyrgyz yurts* so that the affected population can survive the winter.”

Community organisations like “OUR” are vital in responding to relatively small scale natural disasters such as the one that occurred earlier this month.

But there is a so-called ‘Sword of Damocles’ hanging over the region that no-one living there can possibly prepare for completely.

In February 1911 an earthquake estimated at between 6.5 and 7.0 on the Richter scale led to the formation of Lake Sarez, roughly 500 meters deep, 76 kilometers long and 3.3 km wide. The lake holds some 17 cubic kilometres of water.

Several studies, including one conducted by the World Bank in 2004, concluded that the lake would be highly vulnerable if a powerful landslide were to send debris into its waters, with overspill into regional rivers potentially affecting up to 5 million people across Central Asia.

On December 7, Sarez held firm, but its threat to the region is ever-present.

*The Kyrgyz are a Central Asian people, many of whom still live a semi-nomadic existence. They mostly live in Kyrgyzstan, but also in Tajikistan's Pamir region.


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