As the cold begins to recede in this particularly harsh winter in Uzbekistan, it is time to brace for a fresh problem: the floods.
At a meeting of the Cabinet earlier this week, officials turned their attention to making preparations for the likelihood of cataclysmic mudflows and landslides caused by thawing ice and snow.
Where temperatures were routinely below freezing for much of last month, weather forecasters are predicting the thermometer to rise to levels closer to 10 degrees Celsius (50 degrees Fahrenheit) during the day in the coming weeks. Mountainous areas are seeing rises in temperature of around 2 to 7 degrees Celsius.
The authorities have been making plans for this eventuality for a while now. On November 18, the president ordered the creation of national and regional anti-flood units. The Cabinet meeting held on January 30 was devoted to appointing personnel to those units and providing guidance on their objectives.
This is a problem that has been worsening in recent years. According to the state meteorological body, Uzgidromet, the number of recorded floods has been increasing relentlessly: 119 in 2020, 134 in 2021, and 141 from just January to May in 2022.
In one notable incident in May 2020, the collapse of a dam wall near the town of Sarboda released colossal amounts of stored water and forced 90,000 people from their homes and left at least four dead. The episode led to much angry finger-pointing, not least from President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, although the authorities at the same time strongly discouraged local reporters from dwelling too much on either the ultimate causes of the disaster or the humanitarian fallout.
The hope is that the government will do a better job of handling expected flooding hazards than it did with preventing the country from withering under the pressure of a surge in demand for electricity and household gas observed following January 10, when temperatures began plunging to abnormally low levels. Those increases in consumption led to a drop in pressure in the gas supply network and regular power outages across the country.
Flooding in November had relatively little impact on homes, but overflowing in the irrigation water distribution network caused plentiful damage. That is bad news for a country so heavily dependent on farming and where imbalances in production often lead to spikes in prices for certain commodities.
Having endured a tough peak winter, Uzbekistan can ill afford more shocks to the system.
Brutal frosts ruined part of the country’s onion stock in storage, sending prices spiraling. On January 20, the Uzbek agriculture minister announced a four-month ban on exports of onions after prices doubled in three weeks. Potatoes had also jumped in price since the start of the year – by 14 percent, reported specialist agriculture news site East Fruit in mid-January.
There is probably not much the government can do in the short term about flooding in the cities, meanwhile. When heavy rains and hailstorms come, major roads in the capital, Tashkent, become covered with water within a matter of hours. The floods even carry into buildings and the city’s subway system. Emergency services are by and large at a loss to deal with this routine crisis.
The public has little recourse but to take to social media and complain of the dilapidated – and sometimes inexistent – state of the street gutter network. Tashkent is not alone either. As Uzbekistan’s other major cities, like Samarkand and Bukhara, continue expanding in what looks to the untrained eye like a haphazard fashion, flooding is occurring more often there too.