The catastrophic breach of the dam earlier this year provides the perfect opportunity for the Uzbek government to learn from and improve its energy policy towards a sustainable future that goes hand in hand with economic reforms in the country.

By Iain Watt, IGI Solutions, regional expert in water security

Early in the morning of 1st May 2020, after a sustained period of heavy rainfall across the region, the earth-filled dam of the Sardoba Reservoir in the Eastern Uzbek region of Sirdayo was breached. This wasn’t one of the many dams across the world considered to be at risk due to age, no, this dam was completed in 2017.

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SARDOBA RESERVOIR 8 MAY 2020 – image from NASA


Questions were immediately raised as to whether the breach was due to dam failure, lowering of the level of the reservoir in isolation, unusual concentration of rainfall or worse. So, it was only to be expected that two days later on 3 May, a criminal investigation was launched citing possible negligence and violation of construction regulations. Early assessment of the cause and effect seems to point to a sequence of disconnected actions taken after the initial breach which exacerbated the crisis, overwhelming the capacity of the network of local canals around the Southern Golodnostepky Canal to absorb the overflow thereby extending the flood area out of control with terrible consequences. So, now to be credible, the enquiry must be conducted independently, thoroughly and transparently.

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The outcome could have been worse but for many of those affected it was a catastrophe; homes and livelihoods were washed away, acres of cotton fields were destroyed, innocent people were injured, displaced and died. More than 100,000 people had to be evacuated from their homes in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan with hundreds of people reported injured and an unconfirmed number of fatalities. The impact on wildlife and the environment is still unknown.  This occurred at a time of heightened sensitivity around cross-border water and energy security issues.


  • 05.55 on 1 May, Sardobinsky dam breaches
  • 100,000+ evacuated from their homes with unconfirmed number of fatalities
  • 922 million m3 water capacity of Sardoba Reservoir
  • >500 million m3 water lost through the breach
  • 35,000+ hectares of land affected in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan
  • Sardoba Reservoir construction cost 1.3 trillion Uzbekistani Som (c. USD 400 million in 2017 money)
  • Project commissioned in 2008 and completed in 2017
  • Purpose: irrigation with potential for hydro
  • Recovery cost estimated at 1.5 trillion Uzbekistani Som
At least 70,000 people were evacuated after the dam burst.


In Uzbekistan, as elsewhere in Central Asia, the network of old and new dams provides irrigation, power and access to water for the population. Over time, introverted policy, poor decision-making, sub-standard construction and sub-optimal planning have all placed the region’s water resources under severe stress. Unless this is fixed, more tragedies can be expected, raising regional tensions.

The countries which committed to the CAREC Declaration in November 2019 share a vision of cooperation in energy policy, including hydroelectric power. Similarly, there are international committees working on the management of water resources across the Region such as the Scientific Information Centre for the Interstate Commission for Water Resources (SIC ICWC) for Central Asia. Through these, there is a shared understanding of the threats to regional water security by abuse of transboundary river basins such as the Syr Darya where the Sardobinksy Dam is one of 60 large dams stressing water resources.  The nexus of energy, food and water is the foundation of economic development for the region. Without radical policy reform and modernisation through stakeholder alignment, economic and social development will suffer.

A significant part of the challenge is the legacy from Soviet times and the destruction of the Aral Sea Basin stands testament to this. Yet imbalanced national priorities are driving the threat of this catastrophe being repeated unless there is a significant improvement in the alignment of stakeholder interests. The Sardobinksy Dam catastrophe will be repeated unless there is radical change in the management of water across the Region.

Uzbekistan occupies more than half of the irrigated areas in the Aral Sea Basin and also accounts for over half the water withdrawals from the Aral Sea Basin for irrigation purposes. So arguably, Uzbekistan should be leading calls for reform to protect the region’s precious natural resources. 

Cross-border trade is vital to progress in Central Asia and transboundary water and energy reflect this. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have abundant water supplies and Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have rich supplies of oil and gas. Whilst access to clean water is arguably a basic human right, reliable energy systems are essential to the prosperity of nations and the well-being of their people. Policy alignment is essential. Uzbekistan is the only State to border all four Central Asian countries as well as Afghanistan and history shows that the people of the region fare better working together rather than separately. The breach of the Sardobinsky Dam symbolises years of short-sighted mismanagement of water resources not just in Uzbekistan but also in neighbouring countries and the time has come for meaningful change in public policy to stimulate regional inter-dependency and cooperation. To achieve this, sound leadership is needed and the eyes of the world are focused on President Mirziyoyev to influence the changes which will allow natural resources to be harnessed responsibly for economic and social progress.

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Uzbekistan has a more diverse economy than its neighbours and with a population of over 33 million with almost 90% under working age, it is well-positioned to become a key political and economic player. The Sordobinsky Dam breach has been a set-back for the local economy but fixing it following an aligned set of policy changes should be good for the future and set a precedent for policy alignment in other sectors as well as with neighbouring countries.

Following 27 years under the Karimov Presidency from 1989 to 2016, President Mirziyoyev is paving the way for market reforms and modernisation which have drawn the attention of world leaders and investors. Uzbekistan’s sovereign rating sits at BB- with S&P, B1 with Moody’s and BB- with Fitch. The pace of reform will help strengthen ratings and stimulate demand. It is a land of diverse opportunity provided there is a tangible and consistent effort to continue improving standards of governance across all sectors.

Since 2016, reforms have been focused initially on currency, the labour market and the free movement of goods and people. However, natural resources policy reforms must sit at the core of any modernisation strategy as people, food and power drive the economy. The Sardobinsky Dam breach has exposed the frailties of domestic policy in terms of regulatory alignment, clarity, bureaucracy and protectionism and the catastrophe should now be the catalyst for learning and urgent and transparent reform.

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Now is the time to learn from past mistakes and adapt that learning to demonstrate that Uzbekistan is listening to the call for more Environmental, Social and Governance measurements alongside economic ones when planning the country’s sustainable future. Investors are increasingly expecting, indeed demanding ESG ratings alongside financial ones when considering investments and Uzbekistan will benefit from reflecting this. 

The Sardobinsky Dam breach is a loud wake-up call and must serve as a catalyst for positive change in public policy, natural resources strategy, water security, regional cooperation, public procurement and the sound governance of State-run infrastructure projects. A proper risk mitigation, modernisation and integration strategy which matches the economic aspirations of the country will bring obvious benefits to all.