Recent floods highlight the Tajik Pamirs’ entanglements with the outside world

by Carolin Maertens and Martin Saxer

On 16 July 2015, a large mudslide buried parts of the village of Barsem, located in the Ghunt Valley sixteen kilometres east of the town of Khorugh in Tajikistan’s mountainous Pamir region. The mud dammed up the Ghunt river and a sizeable lake formed, interrupting the Pamir Highway that leads along the river. The mudslide at Barsem was triggered by a period of heavy rainfall and exceptionally high temperatures that caused glaciers and snow to melt more rapidly than usual. Accordingly, the Barsem case was only one of many flood related incidents in the Pamirs. Thus, for instance, several bridges along the Pamir Highway were washed away. While the disaster found some coverage in the media, little has since been written about its wider socio-economic significance.

Broken bridge on the Pamir Highway near Murghab.

The lake is now several kilometres long. People rely on rubber rafts that provide an improvised ferry service across. In order to reach the temporary mooring one has to climb a steep mountain slope and follow a dangerously narrow path high above the lake. Gusts of wind swirl up clouds of dust. Most of the people carry heavy bags filled with daily necessities. As the rafts are infrequent and space is scarce, quarrels over seats arise; officials try to maintain order and direct some people to follow the mountain path that circumvents the lake in its entirety.

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While the immediate fallout seems manageable and officials and construction workers in Barsem are confident that the Pamir Highway will reopen rather sooner than later, the incident led to a series of consequences.

The Barsem mudslide blocked a stretch of the Pamir Highway that is used by Tajik trucks delivering Chinese goods from the Tajik-Chinese border in the eastern Pamirs to Dushanbe. As a result, dozens of heavy trucks found themselves stuck in the Pamirs for weeks. Trying to find alternative routes to Tajikistan’s capital, some logistics companies opted for the loop way through Kyrgyzstan. However, the Kyrgyz authorities were reluctant to grant the usually overloaded 60-ton trucks permission to cross and informal arrangements were too expensive. With the Kyrgyz option off the table, many companies tried to send their trucks through the Wakhan valley. However, the dirt road through the Wakhan is not made for heavy vehicles; many got stuck in the mud and had to wait for days until they could be pulled out and bulldozers cleared the road. As the Tajik government focussed its efforts on Barsem, around twenty logistics companies whose vehicles were stuck decided to take matters into their own hands. They rented equipment, hired workers and began upgrading the Wakhan road to a standard that would allow their Chinese-made trucks to pass. “We have an obligation to do so”, a young logistics manager told us. “School is starting soon and parents in Dushanbe need to buy new clothes for their children.”

Since 8 August, an increasing number of trucks is rumbling through the Wakhan every day, leaving behind persistent clouds of dust and broken irrigation channels in the villages they pass through. Repairing these damages is not part of the logistics companies’ efforts to improve the road but left to the villagers; what the trucks do not leave behind, however, are the Chinese goods they carry. These are shipped directly to wholesale markets in Dushanbe from where local shopkeepers bring them back to the Pamir region. The China trade is largely conducted by Dushanbe wholesalers, primarily because costs for visas, travelling and customs clearance make it difficult for retailers in the Pamir region to turn a profit.

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Furthermore, the temporary mobility crises triggered by the floods is aggravated by geopolitical developments. In 2015, after much vacillation Kyrgyzstan finally acceded to the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU, succeeding the former Eurasian Customs Union), while Tajikistan is currently not a member. Especially for the district of Murghab, comprising the mainly Kyrgyz-speaking eastern parts of the Pamir region, the new customs regime makes life increasingly difficult. Although there is still room for negotiations at the border to Kyrgyzstan, informal fees for passengers and goods have substantially increased over the summer. And, with the Pamir Highway as the main link to Khorugh and Dushanbe blocked, the dependence on supplies from the Kyrgyz city of Osh has become even more accentuated. While for the time being, the shopkeepers in Murghab are not overly concerned about immediate shortages, the situation is clearly becoming more difficult. While many people in Murghab hope that Tajikistan will soon also join the EEU and that all the troubles at the Kyrgyz-Tajik border will then be history, there are many more facets to it. Still, given Tajikistan’s enormous dependency on remittances from Russia it seems quite likely that the country will succumb to the Russian pressure to join the EEU.

It remains to be seen whether this summer’s crises of mobility is only temporary, or whether it adds new strain to an already tense economic situation. It is also unclear what will happen to the lake itself. What is certain, however, is that the floods and the new EEU customs regime highlight the regions dependency on fragile outside connections.

Click here to access the Kyrgyz version of this article on BBC Kyrgyz and here for the Uzbek version available on BBC Uzbek.

About the authors:

Carolin Maertens is a PhD Student in Social and Cultural Anthropology at the Ludwig Maximilian University Munich within the ERC Starting Grant Project “Remoteness and Connectivity: Highland Asia in the World.”
Martin Saxer obtained a PhD degree in Social and Cultural Anthropology from the University of Oxford in 2010. He is the Research Group Leader of the above-mentioned ERC Project.