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Dam safety in Central Asia: A matter of life and death

In the dry steppes and deserts of Central Asia dams and their reservoirs of water are crucial for the people and economy. The water reservoirs of different sizes store water for drinking and for irrigation of crops, while generating hydropower. Dams also serve to protect against floods and mudslides.

But these dams are also a potential threat. With vast volumes of water collected, dam accidents or failures can cause disastrous effects, including loss of life. Most Central Asian dams were built 50 to 60 years ago and there have been limited resources for their maintenance and in some places an inadequate legal framework for their safe operation. The ageing dams and sometimes failing maintenance, coupled with population growth in flood plains downstream from the dams, have resulted in increased risks to life, human health, property and the environment.

An accident on the relatively small Kzyl-Agash dam in 2010 caused some 40 fatalities in Kazakhstan. A whole village was washed away due to irresponsible management of the dam. This accident and other incidents have contributed to a sense of urgency for the safety of the more than 100 large dams in the region that are located mostly on transboundary rivers. Just one example is the city of Taraz in Kazakhstan, with a population of 350,000, which is situated just downstream of a major dam located across the border in Kyrgyzstan.

A major accident on one of the many dams in the region presents a real threat, not just to lives, but also through damage to cultivated fields, drinking water supply, electric lines, schools and homes. Effective laws and institutions responsible for dam safety and collaboration between countries are therefore critical for Central Asia. For this reason countries in the region requested UNECE and partner organizations to provide support. With funding from Finland, the Russian Federation and other countries a dam safety project was started to improve supervision of dams and develop regional cooperation. While there are great challenges remaining, the situation has improved.

The project has supported the establishment of national legislation on dam safety, as well as a national authority responsible for dam safety in Tajikistan. Expertise has been provided to the development of dam safety legislation in Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Along with joint training courses for experts from all five countries and production of study materials for the region, a regional cooperation agreement is under development. In particular, work is under way to strengthen safety monitoring of specific dams on two of the major rivers in the region — the Chu and Talas.

An important co-benefit of the dam safety project is that it may also provide an inroad to future cooperation efforts among the countries of Central Asia. While water cooperation in Central Asia remains politically difficult at present, the cooperation on dam safety project involves all five countries with the common interest to avoid damage to life and property from future accidents.