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Tajikistan: Almost One-Third of the Population Is in Danger of Going Hungry This Winter

Almost one-third of Tajikistan's 6.7 million inhabitants may not have enough to eat this winter, United Nations experts worry. In an attempt to avert an emergency, the UN has issued a fresh global appeal for assistance.

The Tajik government has developed a 64-point program in an attempt to prevent a repeat of the hardships experienced last winter, when many areas of the country were left without adequate supplies of heat and electricity, to go along with a scarcity of food. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Since then, the country has experienced further adversity - in particular a severe drought and a locust infestation - that has devastated crops. Grain harvest totals for 2008 are down between 30 percent and 40 percent over the previous year. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

The combination of unfavorable circumstances has experts preparing for a worst-case scenario. Gabriella Waaijman, the Almaty-based regional disaster response advisor for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), estimated that 2.2 million Tajiks face "increased food insecurity," with about 800,000 vulnerable to famine conditions this winter.

On September 25, the UN issued a new Human Food Security Appeal that seeks to raise $34.7 million in emergency aid for Tajiks. "The immediate aim of the appeal is to provide a temporary safety net to the most vulnerable poor people in urban and rural areas through the provision of food and cash," Waaijman said in an email interview. "The appeal also aims to avoid a prolonged relief situation by supporting the agriculture sector through the next planting and harvest cycle and the rehabilitation of critical infrastructure."

The UN assistance program can also plug potential gaps in the 64-point government response plan. "Preparedness planning is focusing on support to critical health care facilities, schools and targeting assistance to vulnerable households in the form of shelter and heating materials for 'one warm room,'" Waaijman wrote. "While the food security situation is the most immediate concern and the focus of the present appeal, additional funding may later be required to fill gaps in the government's plan of action for the winter."

The latest UN appeal runs from this October through December 2009. It follows an appeal that ran from February through August and sought $25 million. The actual total raised was $15 million, or 57 percent of the target. At the same time, $21 million was raised outside the formal appeal framework.

Thus far, the September appeal has generated only a tepid response, attracting $1.6 million, or roughly 4 percent of the target. Even though the appeal still has a long time to run, the slow start could seriously damage its chances for success in alleviating hunger. "The provision of agricultural inputs particularly is a time-critical intervention, meaning that these interventions need to begin immediately in order to yield results in the spring of 2009," Waaijman said. "Delays in funding compromise the ability to meet the deadline for this planting season. While food and cash support to the most vulnerable have less strict deadlines, it is imperative that distributions take place before the winter period starts."

One cause for optimism is that the President Imomali Rahmon's administration has been working closely with international agencies to address hunger issues. "They [Tajik officials] realized that they have a problem and are looking to mitigate it, which we always view as a very positive development," said Stephanie Bunker, a New York-based OCHA representative. Another important factor is that water levels in reservoirs, which dipped to perilously low levels last winter, have rebounded. This raises hope that the country could generate enough hydropower to avoid the same kind of blackout conditions that kept many Tajiks in the dark for much of last winter. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

Some political experts believe that the Tajik government could prove more a hindrance that a help to international relief efforts. One of the skeptics is Eric McGlinchey, a professor at George Mason University, who suggested that Rahmon may be more interested in maintaining his own grip on power than he is in promoting the best interests on nation. "Recent years haven't inspired confidence in Tajik macroeconomic policy," said McGlinchey. "The massive presidential palace in Dushanbe, for example, is an immense spending project that is not in the best interests of the country."

Perhaps the most egregious instance of government malfeasance occurred in the spring of 2008, when the International Monetary Fund demanded repayment in almost $48 million in loans after it discovered that the Tajik National Bank had deliberately misled the global lender about the state of the country's finances. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

Andrew Iacobucci is an editorial assistant at EurasiaNet.

Tajikistan: Almost One-Third of the Population Is in Danger of Going Hungry This Winter

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