NEW YORK--The earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan has killed at least 10,000 people. It is terrible. It may be a sneak preview of something 100 times worse.
Lake Sarez, in the eastern Pamir mountains of Tajikistan, is known to Central Asians as the region's "Sword of Damocles." A mile wide and 600 feet deep, Sarez is one of the biggest high-altitude bodies of water on earth, at an elevation of 11,200 feet.
Lake Sarez was created just over 100 years ago in a remote corner of what was then czarist Russia. On Feb. 18, 1911, a 7.4-scale earthquake, common in the Pamirs, shattered a mountain adjacent to the Murghab River. The resulting landslide formed a half-mile high natural dam that blocked the river. Today the lake is 37 miles long.
Scientists say the dam is going to burst. Whether a quake dislodges a rock slide that creates a wave that crests the dam, or melting glaciers bring the water to the top, computer models predict a devastating inland tsunami sooner than later.
Seventeen cubic kilometers of water will be instantly released. A wall of water 800 feet high will cascade down a series of river valleys in four countries.
In 2007, I trekked up to Sarez in order to research a magazine article for Men's Journal. The following is from that piece:
"The 75-mile Bartang Valley, cultural and spiritual heartland of the Ismaili Muslims, would lose 30 villages and 7,000 people. The Bartang empties into the Pyanj, a large river that marks the border with northern Afghanistan, then Uzbekistan, then Turkmenistan. Six hundred miles downstream from Lake Sarez, the flood would cross into another time zone.
"Five million people--mostly residents of landlocked deserts that routinely reach 125 degrees--would be drowned by snow melt."
Most of the arable land in Central Asia will be destroyed by silt. Tens of millions of Turkmen, Uzbeks, Afghans and Tajiks could starve.
This might happen in 10 years, or next week. It could be happening now.
The dam can be shored up. A bypass to release pressure can be tunneled through bedrock around the left flank of the natural dam. Liberal cost estimates of such an engineering project run around $2 billion.
Tajikistan is desperately poor. The Tajik government doesn't have the cash.
However, $2 billion is small change to Western countries. The United States spends that amount to occupy Iraq and Afghanistan for one week.
When Men's Journal published my piece on Lake Sarez in 2008, I hoped it would prompt the United States to act.
I sent copies to Presidents Bush and Obama, members of Congress, the United Nations, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe and other international organizations. No one replied.
Interestingly, Japan is one of the few donor countries to have taken interest in Lake Sarez, having coughed up a few million dollars for a monitoring station. But there's still no way to evacuate people living downstream in the event of a breach.
A flood that will make the current disaster in Japan look tiny by comparison is becoming increasingly likely. And it will be mostly our fault.