Topography and Drainage

Tajikistan Table of Contents

The lower elevations of Tajikistan are divided into northern and southern regions by a complex of three mountain chains that constitute the westernmost extension of the massive Tian Shan system. Running essentially parallel from east to west, the chains are the Turkestan, Zarafshon, and Hisor (Gisar) mountains. The last of these lies just north of the capital, Dushanbe, which is situated in west-central Tajikistan.

More than half of Tajikistan lies above an elevation of 3,000 meters. Even the lowlands, which are located in the Fergana Valley in the far north and in the southwest, are well above sea level. In the Turkestan range, highest of the western chains, the maximum elevation is 5,510 meters. The highest elevations of this range are in the southeast, near the border with Kyrgyzstan. That region is dominated by the peaks of the Pamir-Alay mountain system, including two of the three highest elevations in the former Soviet Union: Mount Lenin (7,134 meters) and Mount Communism (7,495 meters). Several other peaks in the region also exceed 7,000 meters. The mountains contain numerous glaciers, the largest of which, the Fedchenko, covers more than 700 square kilometers and is the largest glacier in the world outside the polar regions. Because Tajikistan lies in an active seismic belt, severe earthquakes are common.

The Fergana Valley, the most densely populated region in Central Asia, spreads across northern Tajikistan from Uzbekistan on the west to Kyrgyzstan on the east. This long valley, which lies between two mountain ranges, reaches its lowest elevation of 320 meters at Khujand on the Syrdariya. Rivers bring rich soil deposits into the Fergana Valley from the surrounding mountains, creating a series of fertile oases that have long been prized for agriculture.

In Tajikistan's dense river network, the largest rivers are the Syrdariya and the Amu Darya; the largest tributaries are the Vakhsh and the Kofarnihon, which form valleys from northeast to southwest across western Tajikistan. The Amu Darya carries more water than any other river in Central Asia. The upper course of the Amu Darya, called the Panj River, is 921 kilometers long. The river's name changes at the confluence of the Panj, the Vakhsh, and the Kofarnihon rivers in far southwestern Tajikistan. The Vakhsh, called the Kyzyl-Suu upstream in Kyrgyzstan and the Surkhob in its middle course in north-central Tajikistan, is the second largest river in southern Tajikistan after the Amu-Panj system. In the Soviet era, the Vakhsh was dammed at several points for irrigation and electric power generation, most notably at Norak (Nurek), east of Dushanbe, where one of the world's highest dams forms the Norak Reservoir. Numerous factories also were built along the Vakhsh to draw upon its waters and potential for electric power generation.

The two most important rivers in northern Tajikistan are the Syrdariya and the Zarafshon. The former, the second longest river in Central Asia, stretches 195 kilometers (of its total length of 2,400 kilometers) across the Fergana Valley in far-northern Tajikistan. The Zarafshon River runs 316 kilometers (of a total length of 781 kilometers) through the center of Tajikistan. Tajikistan's rivers reach high-water levels twice a year: in the spring, fed by the rainy season and melting mountain snow, and in the summer, fed by melting glaciers. The summer freshets are the more useful for irrigation, especially in the Fergana Valley and the valleys of southeastern Tajikistan. Most of Tajikistan's lakes are of glacial origin and are located in the Pamir region. The largest, the Qarokul (Kara-Kul), is a salt lake devoid of life, lying at an elevation of 4,200 meters.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress