Flood fuel concern about public health crisis in Tajikistan

News and Press Release
Originally published
Officials in Tajikistan are bracing for a public health crisis after flooding contaminated the water supply of the capital Dushanbe. The government's emergency response has been hampered by an underdeveloped public information system.

Heavy rain in recent days caused the flooding of the Varzob River, a chief source of drinking water for Dushanbe. As a result, "a thick liquid unfit not only for drinking but for practical needs as well," is now spewing out of faucets in many Dushanbe households, the Russian news agency Itar-Tass reported. According to official estimates, about half the city's residents now do not have access to clean water. However, some city residents maintain that the percentage of affected city residents is much higher.

Outside of Dushanbe, the flooding washed away bridges and left approximately 3,000 people cut off from the outside world. Portions of a main road linking Dushanbe to points north in Uzbekistan also have been destroyed, according to local media reports.

Authorities struggled to get the word out to city residents about the potential danger caused by the flooding. State television and radio has provided scant details on the crisis. By July 15, however, police and government vehicles were seen driving around Tajik neighborhoods broadcasting a message over loudspeakers that called on people to avoid using tap water for drinking, bathing or any other purpose. In some cases, authorities went door-to-door to inform residents of the dangers. Despite the official warnings, many restaurants in the city continued operate, local observers said.

Amid a lack of accurate information, rumors have swept through neighborhoods about possible sources of contamination. The flooding, according to one unconfirmed report, prompted a tanker truck accident in the mountains outside of Dushanbe, supposedly causing its hazardous cargo to spill into a tributary of the Varzob River. Other reports say the flooding has washed away cemeteries, thus releasing harmful bacteria into the water supply.

Authorities have warned that current conditions could give way to "an outbreak of epidemiological diseases," in particular typhoid. At an emergency response meeting July 15, Mahmadullo Halimov, Tajikistan's first deputy minister of emergency situations, appealed to international donors for relief assistance and medicine.

Dealing with the health crisis could open a gaping hole in the state budget. Tajikistan is among the world's poorest countries, and the state's expenditure on health care is roughly $1 per capita. Local non-governmental organization activists estimate that the cost of treating a single typhoid sufferer at upwards of $100.

Authorities have used tanker trucks to deliver potable water to residential districts and key civic installations, hospitals in particular. But many Dushanbe residents have been left to fend for themselves. The flooding has caused a rush on bottled water in shops, even though it is exorbitantly expensive for many Tajiks. A storm in Dushanbe on July 15 sent residents into the streets with buckets and containers of all sizes to collect rainwater. More rain is predicted to fall in coming days.

Tajikistan is Central Asia's chief source for water. Nevertheless, water-related problems have become chronic in the capital, mainly because of the poor state of the infrastructure. Pumping stations have become clogged with silt, and pipes are corroded. In October 2003, for example, Dushanbe experienced a typhoid outbreak that was linked to the poor quality of drinking water. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Officials have estimated that it would cost at least $60 million to upgrade Dushanbe's water system.

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