Tajikistan: Severe Winter Weather Means Looming Pestilence and Hunger

The United Nations is stepping in to try to rescue Tajikistan from a social catastrophe brought on by severe winter weather. But even if an emergency UN appeal for assistance generates a robust international response, it is questionable whether Tajikistan will be able to avoid entering a downward spiral, featuring pestilence and widespread hunger.

On February 18, the UN issued a "flash appeal," calling for an immediate international infusion of $25.1 million in assistance to Tajikistan. "At least 260,000 people are in need of immediate food assistance," the appeal stated grimly. "Moreover, the government reports that up to 2 million people may require food assistance through the end of the winter, if limited food and fuel supplies in rural areas are not replenished." In all, almost one-third of the country's population of just over 7 million is in need of some form of assistance.

In recent days, the harsh weather, which has routinely featured temperatures of minus-20 Celsius, has exhibited signs of easing. February 17, for example, was mild and sunny in the capital Dushanbe. But in discussing the condition of the country's social and economic infrastructure, no matter what happens the rest of the winter, grievous harm has already been done. Dushanbe and other urban centers enjoy only a few hours of electricity a day, and hydropower generators will be able to operate at no more than 40 percent capacity at least until the onset of spring.

Gulomjon Bobozoda, Tajikistan's minister for Economic Development and Trade, admitted at a February 18 news conference that the chronic power shortage was bound to have a "cumulative effect" on the economy. He added that it was too early to provide an accurate damage assessment.

Meanwhile, Matlubkhon Davlatov, a senior aide to President Imomali Rahmon, acknowledged the government's concern about a looming food crisis. "Industrial enterprises and the agrarian sector are in critical condition," Davlatov said.

The National Bank of Tajikistan has estimated the weather-related economic loss at $250 million in January and February alone, a calamitous figure in a country where the annual state budget is roughly $610 million, according to CIA estimates. The national bank added that the deep freeze has destroyed cotton fields, which are a major source of income for the country. In addition, farmland and private garden plots have been ravaged.

Representatives of the World Food Program and the World Health Organization have cautioned that livestock and poultry have suffered severely during the winter, estimating that production of milk and eggs could experience a 50 percent drop-off. In addition, many Tajiks are grappling with the initial stage of hunger, in which they are spending more than ever on food, but eating less, with many eating only once a day.

Inflation remains an alarming problem. The price of wheat in Tajikistan, for example, climbed 70 percent during 2007. The damage caused to the country's agricultural infrastructure this winter could cause the inflation rate to rapidly accelerate in the spring and summer.

Likewise, experts express concern that once all the snow that fell this winter starts to melt, the country's already over-taxed sewer and water-supply systems will collapse. At the February 18 news conference, Michael Jones, the resident UN coordinator for Tajikistan, warned of a high probability of "future calamities," especially outbreaks of typhoid and other water-borne, infectious diseases.

Jones said that 64 percent of Tajikistan's population subsists on less than $2 per day, while 41 percent did not have access to reliable drinking water.

Various US government agencies have already pledged about $2.5 million in aid, or about one-tenth of the appeal's target. The US Agency for International Development (USAID) intends to provide Tajikistan with fuel, heaters, clothing, household supplies, and health services valued at about $830,000. The State Department has also arranged for about $1.6 million in food aid to be delivered.

Coverage of the crisis by state-controlled media outlets has been muted, with a notable lack of criticism of official policies. But on the streets of Dushanbe, Tajiks are seething.

"We have double standards in our society," said a Dushanbe lawyer, speaking on condition of anonymity. "We see a number of new construction sites in Dushanbe

Konstantin Parshin is a freelance journalist based in Dushanbe. Kambiz Arman is the pseudonym for a Tajik journalist.

Tajikistan: Severe Winter Weather Means Looming Pestilence and Hunger

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