Environmental hazards in Tajikistan’s Pamir Mountains

Is human mobility a major concern for local governments due to climate change, maintenance, rehabilitation, and resilience?

Tajikistan’s Badakhshan province, located in the Pamir Mountains, is subject to reoccurring hazards, such as avalanches, landslides, rockslides, and floods. These hazards damage houses, infrastructures, and limits the overall mobility of residents.

A 2009 World Bank report identified Tajikistan as the most climate-vulnerable country in Europe and Central Asia. Although environmental hazards are far from being new phenomena in the Pamirs, they are exacerbated by the effects of climate change. The 250,000 residents of Badakhshan live far from the administrative center in Dushanbe but near the neighboring countries such as Kyrgyzstan, China, and Afghanistan. These residents often face the consequences of hazards and low accessibility and use the Afghan border to reduce their remoteness and isolation.

Climate Change Exacerbates Mobility Issues

The issue of (in)accessibility in the region is multidimensional. The region’s topography challenges the construction and maintenance of the mobility infrastructure, which is further threatened by frequent environmental hazards. The region’s mobility system is particularly vulnerable due to the absence of public transportation and a low car ownership rate. Passengers share old taxis, and residents are required to clear the roads with limited resources, despite the risk of environmental hazards such as rockslides, avalanches, and floods. A lack of investment from the state in this area compounds this vulnerability.

Rehabilitating roads and protecting them from hazards would require major investments, and the current climate change trends complicates this task further. Studies show that in mountainous areas, glacial melting is likely to trigger more floods, and a change in precipitation patterns could bring more rockslides or avalanches. Local livelihoods involve frequent mobility between rural and urban areas, regionally and nationally, and mobility disruptions severely threaten the residents’ quality of life. Inaccessibility issues of different natures also limit exchanges with neighbouring regions, traditionally providing local populations with several opportunities.

Figure 1. On the road between Ishkashim and Khorog, along the Afghan border (February 2015).
Credit: Suzy Blondin (Author)

Environmental Hazards and The Case of Power Supply

In recent years, the border between Afghanistan and Tajikistan, marked by the Pyanj River, has offered multiple socioeconomic opportunities. These opportunities include developing cross-border initiatives: bridges, weekly transnational markets, electricity grids, and medical facilities. Despite being neglected by the center, borderlanders have extensively utilised these resources. However, development prospects are complicated by the region’s topography, harsh climate, and geopolitical issues. 

The northern regions of Afghanistan depend on electricity production from Tajikistan. During the winter season, the infrastructure in these areas is susceptible to damage, which hinders access to reliable and permanent power. Additionally, micro-hydro generators can freeze or flood and then experience power outages for months.

The challenges on the power grid partly result from environmental hazards prevalent in mountainous regions, particularly the melting of glaciers that provides electricity. The availability of water depends on the Pamir Mountains, where melting glaciers have a significant influence on the water cycle. 

Glaciers that melt too quickly also cause flooding, limiting agricultural land use and suspending road traffic, both essential for reaching the Afghan border. At other times, a lack of precipitation, resulting in lower water levels on the western side of the Pamir Mountains, slows down power generation.  

Due to low snowfall in areas where it fed the rivers in November 2020, water stress induced the suspension of Tajikistan’s electricity exports to Uzbekistan and Afghanistan. The President of Tajikistan, Emomali Rahmon, highlighted “In the autumn and winter of 2019-2020, too little snow fell in the area of formation of the Vakhsh and Pyanj riverbeds, which accounted for 50% of the volume in previous years. This is the first time such a situation has occurred in Tajikistan.” 

Such examples show how environmental hazards may limit transnational exchanges and development prospects. It may even reinforce accessibility issues and the marginalisation of the region.

Possible Solutions to reduce Climate Change Impacts on Human Mobility

Addressing the effects of climate change on human mobility poses a formidable challenge, particularly in regions with limited economic resources. This challenge is further amplified in autonomous regions, such as Tajikistan’s Badakhshan, which have complex relationships with the State. Maintaining and adapting roads to local weather conditions is particularly costly, requiring economical and political involvement. In 2021, the region’s former governor emphasised the financial burden of repairing local roads, declaring, “unfortunately, we have not yet found financial sources to carry out repair work.”

Different foreign actors participate in the building or rehabilitation of roads locally. Namely, Chinese companies have been involved in the (re)construction of roads and bridges. China is interested in developing the connections between its territory and Dushanbe via the M41 Highway traversing the Pamirs. It will play an important role in mobility infrastructure in the coming years. 

Despite such prospects, residents need improved mountain area transportation and/or provisioning systems. The Aga Khan Agency for Habitat has presented a project to aid the residents of Basid, a village located in the Bartang Valley, to remain in their village and adapt to environmental hazards. It’s worth noting that this project has been presented as a solution to address the issues faced by the residents of Basid. Surprisingly, this project involves the establishment of a community drone port. A drone system could effectively facilitate provisioning and emergency relief. But it would not increase people’s mobility capacity and would also necessitate massive investment. 

While the impacts of climate change on mobility infrastructure are being addressed worldwide, it is essential to remember that mobility and accessibility issues also require political will. The current geopolitical context in the region is not conducive to overcoming the challenges mentioned above. The lack of diplomatic relations between Tajikistan and the Taliban regime ruling Afghanistan is blocking development. This gives international actors like China room to maneuver as their actions, interests, and funding remain obscure. 

Human mobility in the region is an issue that local governments should take seriously in terms of climate change, maintenance, rehabilitation, and resilience. On Feb. 18, 2023, a series of avalanches in the Pamirs killed dozens on both sides of the border and blocked many roads, reminding us of this region’s vulnerability. Facilitating people’s movements is urgent, especially when international borders are closed. This is especially important considering that the habitability of many villages is threatened by pressing hazards and a lack of socioeconomic opportunities.


Journal reference

Sadozaï, M., & Blondin, S. (2022). More Remote Yet More Connected? Physical Accessibility and New International Contacts in Tajikistan’s Pamirs Since 1991. Problems of Post-Communism, 1-15. https://doi.org/10.1080/10758216.2022.2149557

Suzy Blondin received her PhD in Geography from the University of Neuchâtel, Switzerland, in 2021. Her doctoral dissertation examined mobility issues to, from, and within Tajikistan’s Bartang Valley, and how urban-rural mobility helps preserve intimate bonds with the valley, despite pressing environmental risks and economic vulnerabilities. Her work highlights involuntary immobility caused by low accessibility and motility, which threaten food security, access to healthcare, and socioeconomic opportunities. Her recent publications include articles in the Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, Mobilities, and Geoforum.

Melanie Sadozai is a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies at George Washington University. Her research, based on ethnographic methods and extensive fieldwork since 2014, focuses on cross-border relations in remote areas of Afghanistan and Tajikistan in the Pamir Mountains. Her interests include everyday life along the border, remoteness and connectivity in high mountain regions, relations between the Taliban and other Central Asian governments, and geographical history of the border and the Pamirs. She has published academic pieces in the Journal of Borderlands Studies, Problems of Post-Communism, and the Journal of Power Institutions in Post-Soviet Societies.