The major environmental problems in Tajikistan are concentrations of agricultural chemicals and salts in the soil and groundwater, pockets of high air pollution caused by industry and motor vehicles, water pollution from agricultural runoff and disposal of untreated industrial waste and sewage, poor management of water resources, and soil erosion. Soil erosion affects an estimated 70 percent of irrigated land, and overgrazing also contributes to soil erosion. Air pollution is a particular problem during times of the year when atmospheric conditions hold industrial and vehicle emissions close to the surface in urban areas. In summer, dust and sand from the deserts of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan cause air pollution across the entire southwestern lowland region. Forest degradation also is a serious problem as trees are cut to expand pastureland on collective farms. [Source: Library of Congress, January 2007 **]

A large Soviet-era uranium mining operation left poorly constructed repositories of radioactive waste in northwestern Tajikistan. Other operations in Tajikistan extracted and processed gold, antimony, tungsten, mercury, and molybdenum, each of which is known to leave toxic waste. The Kofarnihon, Zarafshon, and Vakhsh rivers pass through heavily polluting industrial regions of the country, carrying pollutants into the Amu Darya and thence to the Aral Sea.The expansion of aluminum processing at Tursunzade, a key but long-delayed economic goal, would increase industrial pollution in the Dushanbe region. Tajikistan's withdrawal of water for irrigation from the Syr Darya and tributaries of the Amu Darya also influences the quantity of water downstream. Therefore, Tajikistan’s water management policies are a regional concern. **

The resolution of these problems has been delayed by the overall poverty of the country and the civil war of 1992–97. Although the civil war reduced industrial and agricultural activity substantially, it also interrupted environmental monitoring and maintenance activities put in place by the Soviet Union's Committee on Nature Protection, leaving Tajikistan with a severely reduced infrastructure for both economic and environmental activity. **

Environment - current issues: inadequate sanitation facilities; increasing levels of soil salinity; industrial pollution; excessive pesticides. Environment - international agreements: party to: Biodiversity, Climate Change, Climate Change-Kyoto Protocol, Desertification, Environmental Modification, Ozone Layer Protection, Wetlands signed, but not ratified: none of the selected agreements. [Source: CIA World Factbook =]

In 1992 the Supreme Soviet of Tajikistan established a Ministry of Environmental Protection. However, the enforcement activity of the ministry was limited severely by the political upheavals that plagued Tajikistan in its first years of independence (see Transition to Post-Soviet Government). The only registered private environmental group in Tajikistan in the early 1990s was a chapter of the Social-Ecological Alliance, the largest informal environmental association in the former Soviet Union. The Tajikistani branch's main functions have been to conduct environmental research and to organize protests against the Roghun Hydroelectric Plant project (see Energy). [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

Desertification and overgrazing are serious problems in Tajikistan, Overgrazing is a serious problem in all of the Central Asian countries. Too many animals on too little land has resulted in desertification and soil erosion.

Soviet-Era-Caused Environmental Problems in Tajikistan

Most of Tajikistan's environmental problems are related to the agricultural policies imposed on the country during the Soviet period. By 1991 heavy use of mineral fertilizers and agricultural chemicals was a major cause of pollution in the republic. Among those chemicals were DDT, banned by international convention, and several defoliants and herbicides. In addition to the damage they have done to the air, land, and water, the chemicals have contaminated the cottonseeds whose oil is used widely for cooking. Cotton farmers and their families are at particular risk from the overuse of agricultural chemicals, both from direct physical contact in the field and from the use of the branches of cotton plants at home for fuel. All of these toxic sources are believed to contribute to a high incidence of maternal and child mortality and birth defects. In 1994 the infant mortality rate was 43.2 per 1,000 births, the second highest rate among former Soviet republics. The rate in 1990 had been 40.0 infant deaths per 1,000 births.[Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

Industry also causes pollution problems. A major offender is the production of nonferrous metals. One of Tajikistan's leading industrial sites, the aluminum plant at Regar (also known as Tursunzoda), west of Dushanbe near the border with Uzbekistan, generates large amounts of toxic waste gases that have been blamed for a sharp increase in the number of birth defects among people who live within range of its emissions. *

Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer wrote: Environmental problems also seriously affected the quality of life in Tajikistan. Until the mid 1980s, the Soviet government’s efforts to solve them ‘were still at least partially effective … This situation changed in 1985 and 1986 … One contributing factor was certainly the erosion of technological discipline in industry that took place under perestroika’. Soil degradation, deforestation, air and water pollution and loss of biodiversity emerged as major ecological hazards. Overuse of agricultural lands resulted in appalling soil degradation. According to agronomic norms, plantations in Tajikistan should have produced 700 000 t of raw cotton a year in the 1980s. In reality, annual yields approximated 1 million tonnes. This was achieved primarily through massive use of chemicals. Every hectare of arable land in Tajikistan received 31.6 kg of pesticides in 1986—10 times the average for the USSR. It was normal for farmers to use mineral fertilisers at twice and even six times the recommended rate ‘in the false belief that the more fertilisers you put in, the more cotton you harvest’. Given the omnipresence of cotton plantations in Tajikistan, which pervaded even suburban areas and traditional zones of fruit and vegetable growing, there was little exaggeration in the assessment that ‘the employment of the so-called high technologies of cotton production had led to such catastrophic chemicalisation of agriculture, that local ancient fertile oases became poisoned for long years to come’. [Source: “Tajikistan: Political and Social History” by Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer, Australia National University, 2013 ><]

Disregard of the Environment in Soviet-Era Tajikistan

Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer wrote: Newly built factories were often put into operation without any recycling or rectification facilities. Several types of vegetation died within a 10-km zone around the smelter in Tursunzoda because the fluorine content of the soil rose tenfold between 1979 and 1986, and an environmental disaster eventually turned into a problem of human ecology: it became dangerous to live in the region where ‘the air basin is saturated with compounds of aluminium, fluorine, lead, zinc, cadmium, copper, mercury, arsenic, sulphur and nitrogen oxides, and mineral acids’. Emissions of toxic chemicals by the Yovon electrochemical plant increased from 451 t in 1985 to 853 t in 1987; the concomitant rise in fines—from 300 to 1110 roubles—indicated not punishment but criminal indifference of the authorities to environmental protection. A study conducted in 1991 revealed that residents of Dushanbe, once regarded as the greenest and cleanest capital city in the USSR, were seriously concerned about looming ecological problems. [Source: “Tajikistan: Political and Social History” by Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer, Australia National University, 2013 ><]

“In the post–World War II period, the acreage of forests in Tajikistan decreased almost fourfold. Still, the Soviet-era powers had enough commonsense to set up a number of nature reserves. The most famous reserve, ‘Tiger Gorge’, was established in 1938 in the southern segment of the Vakhsh Valley. A special permit from the republican State Committee for Forestry was required simply to visit it. In the 1960s, however, following the construction of dams on the Vakhsh River, the marshes and bogs in Tiger Gorge began to dry up. In the early 1990s, with the weakening of the political centre, unauthorised agricultural development and logging commenced in the reserve. ><

“Scarce financing of conservation and protection measures, irresponsible behaviour by industrial and agricultural managers, and demographic pressures had undermined the unique ecological potential of Tajikistan. In the early 1990s Tajikistan had the worst ratings amongst all republics of the Soviet Union on a number of indicators pertaining to quality of life, sanitation and medical provision, and the situation was likely to deteriorate. ><

“By the late 1980s, it had become obvious that Tajikistan was in the middle of a ‘systemic structural crisis that economically hinged on absolute land and water starvation, and socially—on the exceptionally high birthrate and the loss by the grassroots social structures of their self-sustainability functions’. Its symptoms used to be ameliorated by the centre’s redistributive policies—the share of aggregate external transfers in the national income used in Tajikistan rose from 6.7 per cent in 1970 to 12 per cent in 1988. Obviously, this situation could not last forever in the conditions of economic collapse during the late Gorbachev period. Tajikistan was living on borrowed time, trying desperately to maintain production and welfare provision at the levels of the more fortunate years of ‘developed socialism’. The crunch in the economic sphere came in 1991. The republic’s budget for that year envisaged a deficit of 23.8 per cent, even though Moscow had promised to contribute 35.8 per cent of all budgetary revenues in subsidies. When the centre failed to deliver, it was only a matter of time before economic catastrophe would become a major factor in the coming political turmoil.” ><

Environmental Problems and Health in Tajikistan

Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer wrote: “In 1989, 82.3 per cent of all pregnant women residing in cotton-sowing areas suffered from anaemia, due to exposure to harmful substances, poor diet and backbreaking labour in plantations. Great quantities of chemical residues returned to surface streams and aquifers with drainage water. The result was not unexpected: ‘The analysis of the high rate of infant mortality has shown that its main cause consists of acute digestive diseases, and especially of the fact that 45 percent of the rural population procured drinking water from open reservoirs.’ To make the situation even worse, industrial sewage escapes in Tajikistan more than doubled over the period 1985–89. In 1990, 15 per cent of drinking water samples showed chemical pollution and 21 per cent of samples had bacteria infestation. [Source: “Tajikistan: Political and Social History” by Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer, Australia National University, 2013 ><]

“Environmental degradation was beginning to affect the health of the population in a gruesome way, similar to that in Turkmenistan. In one cotton-growing kolkhoz, only three of 368 children who underwent medical examination were pronounced healthy. In 1990, Dr Sofia Hakimova, director of the Institute for Reproductive Health in Dushanbe, assessed the situation as follows: ‘The health of the nation has been sacrificed for cotton. Our genetic fund has been completely destroyed. It must be [considered] a case of genocide.’ Furthermore, the ability of local authorities to deal with the fallout of the health crisis was unsatisfactory. In one appalling example, an inspection of Clinical Hospital No. 1 of Dushanbe in 1990 revealed that all the diagnoses made by its specialists were wrong.” ><

Water Issues in Tajikistan

Tajikistan suffers from water shortages. Cotton requires particularly intense irrigation (see Agriculture). In Tajikistan's cotton-growing regions, farms were established in large, semiarid tracts and in tracts reclaimed from the desert, but cotton's growing season is summer, when the region receives virtually no rainfall. The 50 percent increase in cotton cultivation mandated by Soviet and post-Soviet agricultural planners between 1964 and 1994 consequently overtaxed the regional water supply. Poorly designed irrigation networks led to massive runoff, which increased soil salinity and carried toxic agricultural chemicals downstream to other fields, the Aral Sea, and populated areas of the region. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

By the 1980s, nearly 90 percent of water use in Central Asia was for agriculture. Of that quantity, nearly 75 percent came from the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya, the chief tributaries of the Aral Sea on the Kazakstan-Uzbekistan border to the northwest of Tajikistan. As the desiccation of the Aral Sea came to international attention in the 1980s, water-use policy became a contentious issue between Soviet republics such as Tajikistan, where the main rivers rise, and those farther downstream, including Uzbekistan. By the end of the Soviet era, the central government had relinquished central control of water-use policy for Central Asia, but the republics had not agreed on an allocation policy.

Maria Golovnina of Reuters wrote: Under a scorching sun, an exhausted Tajik woman looks at a drying trickle of irrigation water running across her cotton field. "Water is all we have," said Gulbakhor, a 55-year-old mother of nine, pointing at swathes of parched land stretching towards the austere mountains of central Tajikistan. "But all the ponds and rivers are dry. We need to water our crop but we don't have enough even for ourselves." Gulbakhor's despair is shared by millions of Tajiks. [Source: Maria Golovnina, Reuters, June 12, 2008 ***]

“In the Tajik village of Sangtuda, a scattering of huts in a dusty, sun-puckered valley near the border with Afghanistan, villagers showed their only source of water: a rusty pipe pumping muddy water from a Soviet-era reservoir. "We are lucky. There are villages around with no water at all," said Khikoyat Shamsiddinova, an elderly farmer who said she had started planting drought-tolerant peas and watermelons -- a small boost to her household income. ***

“The problems are having an effect far beyond farming. Lacking oil and gas reserves like some of its neighbors, Tajikistan depends on its sole Soviet-era hydroelectric plant, Nurek, to generate power. Its crumbling power grid -- ruined by civil war in the 1990s -- finally gave out last winter, throwing hospitals, schools and millions of people into the dark and cold for weeks. Makhmadnabi, a villager with a tired, weather-beaten faced, said people were becoming impatient. "The government must do something about it. People are gloomy," he said. ***

Helping Tajikistan with Its Water Problems

Maria Golovnina of Reuters wrote: “Water scarcity is particularly painful for Tajikistan since its glaciers and rivers contain some of the world's biggest untapped water resources. A Soviet-era legacy of waste and decaying pipe networks are hampering sustainable distribution. The World Bank, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and a host of European non-governmental organizations are helping Tajikistan build new canals and wells and repair the old ones. [Source: Maria Golovnina, Reuters, June 12, 2008 ***]

“With a foreign debt worth 40 percent of the economy and state coffers empty, Tajikistan is unable to finance urgent sector reform, adding to discontent and potential unrest in an otherwise tightly run country where dissent is not tolerated. "There is definitely a build-up of dissatisfaction," said one Western diplomat who asked not be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue. "People will have to go through another winter of dark and cold and then they will realize that something's wrong." ***

“In April, parliament urged Tajiks to give up half their wages in May and June to help finish construction of the $3 billion Rogun hydroelectric plant -- a project seen as key to solving energy shortages but which has been frozen since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. "I urge all the patriots and sons of our land to take active part in constructing the first phase of the plant and add your contribution to the country's energy independence," Tajik President Imomali Rakhmon was quoted as saying in local media on May 31.” ***

Lake Sarez: a Biblical Scale Disaster in the Making?

Lake Sarez is a 500-meter-deep Alpine lake that occupies and area about half the size of Lake Geneva in central-western Tajikistan. Located at an elevation of 3,265 meters, it was created in 1911 by an earthquake that dislodged an entire mountain side, creating a 60-meter-high natural dam composed of rocks and earth that blocked the Mugrab river. Earthquakes are fairly common in the area. There are concerns that a large one could cause the natural dam to break up, causing a catastrophic flood resulting from water suddenly emptying from the lake. Such a flood would likely produce a 30-meter-high wave that would sweep through Tajikistan into Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Afghanistan, obliterating everything in its path, sweeping away entire villages and towns, causing the death and destruction on a Biblical scale and possibly producing one of the worst floods in the history of mankind.

According to UNESCO: Lake Sarez is a very high, deep lake impounded just over a century ago by a severe earthquake which generated a huge landslide forming the Uzoi Dam, the highest natural dam in the world. It was created by an earthquake-generated landslide of an estimated six billion tonnes of material and is possibly the youngest deep water alpine lake in the world. It is of international scientific and geomorphological hazard significance because of the on-going geological processes influencing its stability, and the sort of lacustrine ecosystem which will develop over time.

Robert Middleton and Huw Thomas wrote in “Tajikistan and the High Pamirs”: “The 1911 Sarez earthquake, estimated at 6.5-7.0 on the Richter scale, occurred about midnight, 5–6 February 1911 (old style). Deaths were estimated at 302. The landslide was 2.2 billion cubic meters and formed the Usoi Dam which is approx. 5km long, 3.2 km wide and up to 567m high, the tallest natural dam in the world. Usoi was a village buried under the landslide...The area was so isolated and the destruction of mountain tracks so complete that it took six weeks before word reached the Russian posts at Murghab and Khorog. [Source: Robert Middleton and Huw Thomas, Tajikistan and the High Pamirs, Odyssey, 2008 */*]

“In 1968 a landslide caused two-meter-high waves in the lake. A 1997 conference in Dushanbe concluded that the dam was unstable and might collapse if there were another powerful earthquake. A 2004 study by the World Bank held that the dam was stable. The principal danger seems to be a partially detached mass of rock of about 3 cubic kilometers that could break loose and fall into the lake. Since the valley below the dam is so narrow, any flood would be very destructive. The result of a global risk analysis carried out by Stucky for the World Bank was presented at the 2002 IAHR Symposium in St Petersburg and at the 2006 International Congress on Large Dams in Barcelona. */*

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated April 2016

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