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Waiting for the Dragon to Wake Up

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a narrow gorge of the Pamir Mountains, miles from electricity and telephones, the villagers scrape a meager living from the land much as their ancestors did. They cook their paltry meals over open fires and sleep in houses made of mud and stone.

They know it is their fate to live in poverty until the Sleeping Dragon awakens in the mountains above them and wipes their village from the face of the Earth.

Every child in Yapshorv grows up hearing the story of the night in February 1911 when the ground shook and a landslide crushed a village 14 miles up the Murgab River. The immense pile of rock dammed the fast-flowing water, creating a lake that inundated a second village and forced the inhabitants to flee.

Legend says the villages were punished because the people had grown too wealthy and had forgotten their god. Gradually, the water backed up and filled the steep gorges of the mountains, taking the shape of a dragon 37 miles long, with its head pointed toward this village.

Today, the 226 people of Yapshorv know that another earthquake could rupture the massive natural dam and unleash a flood that would wash away their village in minutes. Few think of leaving.

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“Of course it’s dangerous,” said Rezosho Yormamadov, 26. “The water will cover us and we will die.

“But where would we go? We have lived here all our lives.”

While the villagers find it simplest to ignore the danger, the Sleeping Dragon of Central Asia is attracting growing attention from officials of this former Soviet republic and scientists around the world who hope to avert a deluge of biblical proportions.

The dam, named the Usoi Dam after the village of 56 people it crushed, is a wonder of nature. Measuring 2,130 feet in height, it is the tallest dam on Earth--natural or man-made. The tallest dam in the United States--Oroville Dam in Northern California--is 770 feet high. The Sleeping Dragon, officially named Lake Sarez after the village it flooded, holds three times as much water as Lake Shasta in California.

Four Nations Would Be at Risk

Tajik and Soviet scientists have warned for decades that the dam could collapse and flood an area inhabited by 5 million people in four Central Asian countries--Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. According to their prediction, a wave taller than Los Angeles’ City Hall would rush down the valley below the dam. As the water spread, it would engulf villages, towns and cities for more than 1,300 miles along the rivers of the four countries, ultimately reaching the Aral Sea in Uzbekistan.

In the event of a partial rupture, U.N. and Tajik experts estimate that 120,000 people living nearest the dam would be in jeopardy. In the event the dam were to fail completely, they predict a catastrophe that would surpass the most devastating natural disasters in human history.

While some question Soviet scientific methods underlying the forecast, concern over the dam was heightened last year after two earthquakes struck neighboring Afghanistan 150 miles from Lake Sarez, killing more than 8,000 people. An international team of experts assembled by the United Nations recently visited the lake and is trying to evaluate the extent of the threat.

“It’s definitely a time bomb, and with seismic activity in the region, it’s scaring people a lot,” said Scott Weber, who is coordinating the U.N. mission. “If an earthquake could create this huge landslide, another one could easily remove it.”

Given the pattern of earthquakes in Central Asia, Tajik scientists say, the Pamirs are due for a major temblor in the next few decades. “It could happen today,” said Anvardzhon S. Abdulloyev, director of Tajikistan’s Lake Sarez project. “It could happen tomorrow.”

Seismic monitoring at the lake, primitive as it was, ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Tajikistan lacks the money and equipment to resume the testing, and its scientists are reduced to pleading for help from the West. “We need donors,” Abdulloyev said. “We need funds.”

To lessen the danger from landslides above Sarez, U.N. and Tajik scientists are considering a plan to lower the lake level by pumping out some of the water. But the task presents daunting logistical problems. For one, there is no road to the lake; all construction materials would have to be flown in by helicopter.

“The size of the engineering problems at Lake Sarez is beyond the state of today’s engineering,” University of Utah professor Donald Alford, the U.N. mission’s team leader, said after visiting the lake.

Warning System Is Considered

As an interim solution, the World Bank is considering financing the installation of sirens in villages and towns to warn the populace of advancing flood waters. While such a system might buy enough time for people far from the lake to run into the mountains, inhabitants of the Bartang Valley just below the dam know it is unlikely to save them.

“The water will reach us faster than the signal,” said Yapshorv village head Kukumacho Aksakalov, 38.

The rugged Pamirs, closed to the outside world during 70 years of Soviet rule, are among the world’s tallest mountains. Set in the eastern half of Tajikistan, the mountain region is one of astonishing beauty, with glaciers and snow-covered summits, deep gorges and waterfalls that plunge thousands of feet down sheer cliffs. Just 50 miles northwest of Sarez is 24,590-foot Communism Peak, the highest point in the former Soviet Union. Marco Polo supposedly traveled through the Pamirs along the old Silk Road during his legendary 13th century journey from Italy to China.

Tajikistan, with 5.7 million people, is bordered by China, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. It gained independence for the first time in 1991 with the breakup of the Soviet Union but soon plunged into a civil war between Communists, who controlled the government, and Muslim clans, which had the backing of the people of the Pamirs. Two years ago, both sides acknowledged that the war was a mistake and signed a peace accord, but the government has been slow to implement a power-sharing agreement.

With the Tajik economy in ruins, the people of the Pamirs have relied on the charity of the outside world for food and clothing, especially the Red Crescent Society and the Aga Khan, the 49th Imam of the Ismailis, a Shiite Muslim sect.

The spiritual leader also is financing irrigation projects and small hydroelectric plants to help the people become self-sufficient. The people of the Pamirs are predominantly Muslim but are not strongly religious. Women are not required to veil their faces, and there is not a single mosque in the Pamir Mountains. Many in the region, however, say they owe their lives to the Aga Khan; some call him “a living god.”

In the Bartang Valley below Lake Sarez, 7,000 people live in 30 villages linked by a winding road that is often left impassable by landslides and rushing streams. So few vehicles travel in the valley that children stop and stare when a car passes through a village. The mud houses are built with communal sleeping platforms; many have a hole in the roof to let smoke out and sunlight in.

The children go barefoot and dirty, and many villagers are dressed in little more than rags. Few villagers live past their 60s.

Getting enough to eat is of more concern than the possibility that the Usoi Dam might fail.

Boulders as Big as Houses

The Sleeping Dragon, perched at an elevation of 10,700 feet, was little known outside the Soviet Union before the collapse of communism. Set among peaks that rise as high as 19,000 feet, the lake’s treeless lunar landscape and mystical deep blue waters have added to its legend.

When the earthquake created the lake, it produced a remarkable natural system that has remained in balance for nearly a century. The magnitude 7.4 quake dislodged about 2.2 cubic kilometers of rock and dirt--by way of comparison, the 1984 eruption of Mt. St. Helens spewed a mere 1 cubic kilometer of material--that filled a three-mile stretch of the Murgab River. Some boulders at the base of the dam are as big as houses.

At first the rocks blocked the river completely, but within three years, water began filtering through the barrier. The lake is so big, it took two decades to fill to its current depth. Today, enough water percolates through the dam into the river to keep Sarez from overflowing; the lake’s level remains stable about 165 feet below the top of the dam.

Scientists say the Usoi Dam is so thick that it is unlikely an earthquake could topple it. But experts are concerned that a quake could shift earth within the dam and alter the path of the river as it flows underground, washing away rocks and soil and creating internal instability that could fracture it.

An even bigger threat, they say, is the possibility that a large rock outcropping above Sarez could break off and plunge into the lake in a major quake. Large cracks have appeared above the mass of rock, which geologists estimate at one-seventeenth the volume of Sarez. Scientists worry that the instantaneous displacement of so much water could set off a tsunami-like wave that would flow over the dam, eat away the soil and trigger a disastrous breach.

“It could create a wave higher than 100 meters [330 feet],” said Maj. Yusufsho Akdodov, a geologist and Tajikistan’s chief engineer for Lake Sarez. “The wave would begin to destroy the soft right-hand flank of the dam. Crevices and cracks could result, and a huge amount of water could go down. The zone of destruction would end with the Aral Sea.”

Akdodov is quick to acknowledge that estimates of the potential calamity are outdated, and he called on scientists to conduct new computer modeling to better understand how the dam would behave in a quake, how much water might be released and how large a zone could be flooded.

Under the doomsday scenario, an icy wall of water would obliterate Yapshorv and three other villages near the dam within 30 minutes, Tajik and U.N. experts said.

“These people would be dead before they knew what happened,” said the U.N.'s Weber. “The wave would start at about the height of the Washington Monument and destroy almost everything in its path.”

The high walls of the canyon would channel the water as it roared down the Murgab and Bartang rivers, wiping out the valley’s 7,000 people before flooding the first town, Rushan, and its 4,500 residents about 80 miles from the dam.

“The wave will be so huge, I don’t think people will manage to save themselves,” said Imomnazar Sufiyev, 41, a resident of the town. “It’s not only a danger for us, it’s a danger for all of Central Asia. We will just be the first victims.”

From Rushan, the water would rush down the Panj River that separates Tajikistan and Afghanistan, engulfing hundreds of villages on both sides of the border.

Experts estimate that it would take the flood waters 30 hours to reach Termez, Uzbekistan, and its population of 90,000. There, 600 miles from the dam, the flood waters would still be two stories high, Weber said.

The water would inflict the greatest damage as it spread out into the populated plains along the Amu Darya River that flows through Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan on its way to the Aral Sea.

“I know if the dam breaks, there will be two republics less,” said Kom Gulamchaev, 72, a lifelong resident of Rushan. “But I don’t worry. God will protect us.”

The people of the Pamirs learned long ago to live with danger; they have no other choice. They face war, earthquakes, landslides, avalanches, poisonous snakes, hazardous roads and rickety bridges as a matter of routine. Earlier this month, slides caused by heavy rains killed 23 people; 50 more are missing.

Many of the people trust in fate because there is nothing else they can do.

Even with the threat of the dam breaking, the flood zone’s population has swollen in the 1990s as refugees have fled civil war in the flatlands.

After living for 40 years in Dushanbe, Tajikistan’s capital, 62-year-old Nazarmamed Shakhmamedov ran from the fighting in 1993 and returned to his native Yapshorv. The prospect of a flood seemed safer than the hazards of war.

“I worry, of course,” he said. “Nothing will be left of the village if it comes. But I had to choose between the two dangers, and I chose this one.”

Having grown up with stories about the lake, teacher Fais Nazariyev, 38, decided to see for himself what the Sleeping Dragon was like. He walked to the lake from his village of Basid--a six-day round trip--and was overcome by the enormity of the dam.

“I looked at the dam, and I looked at the lake, and I was terrified,” he said. “Old people used to tell us horror stories. I didn’t believe them until I saw it with my own eyes.”

Soon after, he formed a musical group he named the Wave of Sarez and built a cabin high in a gorge so that he and his family would have a place to run--although he doubts there will be time. “Within 10 or 15 years the dam will break,” he said. “We’ll be drowned.”


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