Kyrgyzstan’s crumbling schools: A tragedy waiting to happen
Kyrgyzstan's rural schools are falling apart, sometimes dangerously so. And new buildings aren't finished for lack of funds.
Like many a parent, Meerim Tolomushova, 35, begins to fret about her small children the moment they step out of the door to go to school.
It is not just their grades she’s worried about. The very real concern is that the rotting floor of the classes in which they study might give way at any moment.
Kyzyl-Zhyldyz, her village in a mountainous area of eastern Kyrgyzstan, has one school that packs in 400 local children. Five years ago, some of the buildings, of which the oldest dates back to the 1930s, were officially designated as being unfit for purpose and in need of urgent renovation. Since then, nothing has been done.
“The foundations of the building are sinking and the floors are rotting,” Tolomushova said. “When I go to parent meetings, I feel like the floor is creaking under me as though it was going to collapse at any moment.”
The school is far from unique. Of the 2,256 schools nationwide, around 8 percent are deemed not fit for purpose. In September, Samat Borubayev, who is the state secretary for the Architecture, Construction, Housing and Communal Services Agency, better known as Gosstroi, said that 13 billion som ($186 million) would be needed to replace the nation’s estimated 190 ruined schools from scratch.
That proportion is even more alarming in the Naryn province, where Kyzyl-Zhyldyz is located. Out of the 140 schools there, 22 are considered to be in a perilous condition.
The buildings are accordingly particularly vulnerable to the kinds of calamities that can occur in mountainous areas. Tolomushova worries that if there should be a landslide anywhere nearby, the local school will be crushed.
Basic facilities are an almost unimaginable luxury. There is no space to play soccer in the Kyzyl-Zhyldyz school. Whatever physical education classes are done are held outside, where temperatures can drop well below -30 degrees Celsius (-22 degrees Fahrenheit) in winter.
The principal, Toktoshukur Mutaliyev, admitted that some of the newer buildings were built by the residents themselves. The most recent one went up in 2000. Occasional cosmetic repairs are paid for out of the pockets of the cash-strapped villagers themselves. But the oldest buildings are beyond saving.
“In spring, when the snow melts, the walls deteriorate due to the damp,” Mutaliyev said. “Every year, we plaster over the crumbling spots, but cracks still remain. The beams are also old, there is a danger they could fall on top of the children.”
One alternative is to send children to safer schools in the district center of Chaek, a village about five kilometers away. But because there is no public transport, many children, some as young as six or so, have to walk.
“I cannot have my children going there. If they are held up late in class, how are they supposed to get home? We would take them ourselves, but we don’t have a car,” Tolomushova said.
When a school is formally designated as being in chronically dilapidated condition, it is supposed to lead to renovation. But the funds frequently fail to arrive.
One year after Kyzyl-Zhyldyz school got its report, the government put out a tender for a new building to be erected at a cost of 57 million som (around $770,000 at 2016 rates).
Since that time, only one-fifth of the funds have been released. All that has been built are the foundations and a metallic skeleton structure.
It is a similar story in Tash-Dobo, another village in Naryn province. The school there accommodates more than 360 pupils, although it is designed for only half that number. To squeeze into the classrooms, children sit three to a desk.
“It is difficult for teachers to give classes because there are so many students. There is no room for study clubs. And there is no gym, so all of the physical education classes have to be done outside,” said deputy principal Zhyldyz Isayeva.
In this village, 55 million som was set aside for reconstruction. But the government has only disbursed half of that amount.
Temirbek Saparaliyev, a technical specialist for Gosstroi in the Zhumgal region, where Tash-Dobo is situated, said no money had been allocated in 2019 to continue the work.
“Construction of the first and second floors is being completed, but work on the roof has not yet begun,” Saparaliyev said. “And if the roof is not put on, the bricks will gradually begin to disintegrate. The walls will become unusable. As a result, the building could collapse.”
The amenities likewise suffer because there is so little money to go around. Karlygach Shamuratova serves food in a canteen with cracked walls and rotting floors. For her 5,500 som ($80) monthly salary, Shamuratova must also do the cleaning.
To prepare lunches, Shamuratova needs hundreds of liters of clean water, but in winter the plumbing grinds to a halt. To get the water, she has to take the car for a two-kilometer drive to a nearby gully. She pays for the gas out of her own pocket.
“Cattle drink from the same gully. All the villagers know about the situation. But there is no way out. What we can do?" she said.
The issue attracted particular attention at the start of the current academic year, when pictures circulated on the internet showing children in the Naryn province village of Kenesh studying in steel containers.
And if that was not bad enough, local government officials had actually come to attend a ceremony to mark the inauguration of those containers. Amid the wave of outrage that followed, Education Minister Gulmira Kudaiberdiyeva and the government’s plenipotentiary to the Naryn province, Amanbai Kayipov, lost their jobs.
In short order, the government announced that new permanent premises would be erected for the Kenesh school and 2 million som were earmarked for that purpose.
Parents of children at schools that do not get that level of scrutiny, meanwhile, can only hope that their village is not struck by a landslide or an earthquake.
“I pray that there will never be a tragedy and that the roof doesn’t collapse on top of my children,” Tolomushova said.
This article was prepared on the basis of reporting by Kloop news website and is reproduced here with permission.