Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Kazak Authorities Probe Flood Tragedy

Prosecutors investigating possible case of negligence after dam burst swamps village, killing 40. By Yana Bachevskaya in Taldykorgan, Daulet Kanagatuly and Nikolai Tsoy in Almaty
By Yana Bachevskaya, Daulet Kanagatuly, Nikolai Tsoy

The authorities in Kazakstan are investigating local officials on possible charges of allowing a dam to burst and failing to evacuate people living downstream when there was a serious risk of flooding.

Eyewitnesses said they saw a wall of water rising three metres high as it rushed down a river in the eastern district of Aqsu, smashing into the village of Kyzylagash just after ten in the evening of March 11 and leaving massive devastation in its wake.

An IWPR journalist who visited the scene soon afterwards saw homes in ruins, cars wrecked and trees uprooted by the force of the floodwaters.

When this report was published, officials were saying 40 people were known to have died and several dozen more were unaccounted for.

Local people interviewed by IWPR believed the death toll was significantly higher, with one Kyzylagash resident saying she visited a morgue to identify a dead relative and saw around 100 bodies there.

Police prevented an IWPR reporter entering the morgue to check the claim, saying they had been instructed not to let anyone in.

However, an official from the Almaty provincial government told IWPR that more people had died than had been confirmed to date.

“Local people say around 4,000 people were living there, and 1,119 were evacuated. So where are the rest?” said the official, who did not want to be named. “Where are the passengers from the bus going from Oskemen to Almaty who were having dinner in a roadside cafe?”

The bus itself has been found, swept downstream by the floodwaters, he added.

Other sources give a lower figure for the number of people recorded as living in Kyzylagash – the ministry for emergencies said there were around 3,000 residents, while the official news agency KazTAG cited 2,240.

Almaty region, where the village is located, held a day of mourning on March 15.

Southern and eastern parts of Kazakstan experienced unusually heavy snow over the winter, and as temperatures rise, flooding and mudslides have become widespread.

In this case, however, the government clearly suspects that human error aggravated the risks created by nature. At a cabinet meeting on March 13, interrupted by a minute’s silence to remember the victims, President Nursultan Nazarbaev said anyone found to have contributed to the tragedy would face penalties.

The president ordered a special government commission to deal with the aftermath of the devastation, headed by Deputy Prime Minister Aset Isekeshev.

According to a press release which the Kazak interior ministry issued on March 15, the authorities have taken five men into custody – the head of Kyzylagash’s village council, the deputy head of the Almaty regional department for emergencies and his counterpart in Aqsu district, and the directors of two private companies, one of which owns the reservoir while the other controls water distribution in the area.

The prosecution service in Almaty region has opened a criminal case in which two offences have been cited – negligence and failure to act.

IWPR was only able to reach one of the lawyers for the accused, who denied any wrongdoing on the part of his client – one of the company officials in detention – with regard to the way the reservoir and dam were managed prior to the accident.

“The structure has been in private hands for more than a decade. People have been working to supply several villages with water. If it hadn’t been for the accident it would have carried on that way,” said the lawyer, who refuse to give either his own name or that of his client, for fear of being accused of prejudicing the case. “I have copies of documents relating to a site inspection by officials from the emergencies department and the hygiene and epidemiological service. Everything was in order and there were no irregularities, technical or sanitary.”

He concluded, “Once again, people are being accused because they are in the firing line, not because of something they have done,” he said.

Water engineer Yury Zemlyanov said the dam was fitted with an emergency sluice system that if activated, could have prevented it rupturing. This did not happen, and residents of Kyzylagash say they did not receive a flood warning when the water behind the dam was rising to dangerous levels.

Local teacher Sayra Asylbaeva said she left the village a few hours before the dam broke, after hearing worrying rumours about the reservoir.

“We were ashamed to be leaving others behind, but we did warn people whom we knew that the water might be coming,” she said. “Those who weren’t aware stayed at home with their families. Now they’re dead.”

Another villager, Zina Kalieva, said her family escaped only because their neighbours received a call from Taldykorgan, the administrative centre of Almaty province, warning them that the dam was about to burst.

“It was only when it was night, after we’d been up to our waists in water, and calling out to each other in the darkness, that we managed to get to the highway with great difficulty,” she said.

A local man who would not give his name said villagers had been asking for some time for water to be released through the dam sluices to relieve the pressure.

“A month ago, local residents were saying they should let the water out. But they didn’t do that, and now the village has been swept away,” he said.

Like several other villagers interviewed by IWPR, this man said that shortly before the dam burst, local officials were telling people not to panic as everything was under control.

“Many of those who obeyed and stayed behind are dead,” he said.”

However, the defence lawyer interviewed by IWPR said he had meteorological office data that showed rainfall levels had been unusually high. This, he argued, could have meant that water levels in the reservoir rose so rapidly that the defendants now being accused of negligence would have had no time to take preventive measures.

Officials say 146 houses in Kyzylagash were completely destroyed and another 251 damaged, although the Almaty provincial official to whom IWPR spoke said this figure did not include buildings that people had put up without obtaining planning permission.

Around one-third of Kyzylagash’s residents are ethnic Kazaks who have moved to the country from neighbouring Central Asian states, Mongolia and China, under a government-sponsored resettlement programme. The official said it tended to be members of this group who did not go through the process of registering new buildings with the authorities.

The deputy governor of Almaty region, Amanandyk Batalov, said in a statement released on March 14 that families were returning to the village, where they would stay in the local school for the moment. Other evacuated families were being provided with temporary shelter either nearby or in Taldykorgan.

Batalov said households were receiving a cash payment worth around 3,400 US dollars, plus drinking water, fuel and fodder for their livestock.

Meanwhile, teams of workers are clearing rubble so that work on new homes can get under way, and are also repairing the main road which connects Kazakstan’s financial capital Almaty with the city of Oskemen (Ust-Kamenogorsk). A temporary detour for the road has been created.

Yana Bachevskaya, Daulet Kanagatuly and Nikolai Tsoy are IWPR-trained journalists in Kazakstan.