Cargo trucks in debris seen on this InterPressNews photo taken from a helicopter in Dariali gorge, May 18, 2014.
A Ukrainian citizen died and at least seven people are missing as a result of landslide in Georgia’s Dariali gorge close to the Russian border, which has also closed down traffic on the road linking Georgia and Russia and damaged pipeline supplying Russian gas to Armenia.
Landslide, which according to geologists from the ministry of environment originated from Devdoraki glacier on the northeastern slope of Mkinvartsveri (Mount Kazbek), brought on Saturday morning a huge amount of mud and debris through a valley eastward down to Dariali gorge where the river Tergi flows northward towards Russia. Road, formerly known as Georgian Military Road, leading to the Kazbegi-Larsi border crossing point with Russia, runs along the river Tergi.
Several cargo trucks, en route to Russia, were damaged by debris and several others buried under the mud.
Several persons were recovered alive from trucks by rescuers on Saturday. But one drive, a 35-year-old Ukrainian citizen, was recovered in a critical condition from the truck about seven hours after the landslide hit; he was flown in a helicopter to hospital in Tbilisi, but he succumbed to serious injuries on Sunday morning, according to a doctor.
Three trucks remain buried under the debris and mud, according to a press release issued by government’s state security and crisis management council on Sunday evening.
Massive landslide blocked Tergi river bed in Dariali gorge, destroyed portion of the road linking Georgia with Russia and flooded some parts of the same road, May 17, 2014. Photo: InterPressNews
It, however, also said that this figure of three trucks is “not verified”. It also said that “seven people are missing.”
The place is close to a construction site of Dariali hydro power plant (HPP).
According to the Interior Ministry, 12 workers, trapped in HPP’s derivation tunnel, were rescued on Saturday; all of them are Turkish citizens.
But according to the official reports, several persons – no precise number is yet known, still remain trapped in HPP’s derivation tunnel, where construction works were underway when the landslide hit.
Debris and mud blocked Tergi riverbed, creating a dam, destroying and flooding portions of the main road.
According to officials, on Saturday there was a fear of river bursting the debris dam, posing serious threat to facilities on its way, including the Kazbegi-Larsi border crossing point and possibly even beyond on the Russian side of the border.
The Russian Foreign Ministry said in a brief statement on Saturday that officials from Russia’s ministry for emergency situations were in touch with Georgian counterparts. “Relevant coordination and interaction is being arranged,” it said.
Later on Saturday Georgian officials said that threat of Tergi river bursting debris dam subsided as it was possible to decrease level of water by diverting it through pipelines that were constructed for Dariali HPP.
Tractors cleaning Tergi riverbed, May 18, 2014. Photo: InterPressNews
“Intensive efforts are underway to find missing persons, but the operation is hindered by high level of water and large amount of debris,” the state security and crisis management council said on Sunday evening.
With the road blocked, the only way to reach other side of Dariali gorge up to the Kazbegi-Larsi border checkpoint is by a helicopter flight.
According to the Georgian Interior Ministry about 150 people, mainly customs, border guard and police employees, as well as several foreign citizens, who are cargo truck drivers, were evacuated by helicopter from the border crossing checkpoint and its nearby areas.
North-South Pipeline, running through the area, has also been damaged, suspending transit of Russian gas to Armenia via Georgia, according to the Georgian Oil and Gas Corporation.
The Georgian officials were not able on Sunday to say how long it will take to decrease level of water and to start road restoration works. The road is also important for Armenia as it is the only land access for this country to Russia via Georgia.
The state security and crisis management council said on Sunday that “work to clear the riverbed continues around the clock.”
Earlier on Saturday, when details of the incident were not yet clear, massive landslide, which was described as mountainside collapse, triggered speculation that construction of Dariali HPP could have been the possible cause.
Construction of this and another hydro power plant, Larsi HPP, in this area has long been the source of concern of environmental groups. But speculation about the possible link was denied by the authorities.
Natural disaster in the Dariali gorge “has nothing to do with the hydro power plant there,” PM Irakli Garibashvili said at a groundbreaking ceremony for the construction of Khobi HPP-2 with installed capacity of 55 MW in Chkhorotsku municipality of Samegrelo region on May 18. He said that it was Dariali HPP’s pipelines, which helped to reduce level of water and to prevent “even worse disaster.”
Opening of the Dariali HPP, which will have an installed capacity of 108 MW, is scheduled for October, 2015. According to one of its executives, it is not yet possible to say whether the opening will be rescheduled or not as the damage, potentially inflicted by the landslide has yet to be assessed.
Geologists from the ministry of environment were sent to assess threat of possible reoccurrence of major glacier slide on Devdoraki and the Interior Ministry set several posts manned by border guards in the Devdoraki valley to alert workers in the Dariali gorge in case of threat.
One man died in August, 2007 when the Dariali gorge was hit by mudslide, which blocked the Tergi riverbed and washed away about 400-meter portion of the road.