Global economic downturn worsens already harsh conditions for rural Tajiks
DUSHANBE, Tajikistan, 29 July 2009 - It would be hard to find a more beautiful region than Tajikistan's Rasht Valley. It looks like a land of plenty, its people tilling the soil and herding cattle. But appearances are deceptive.
"People are busy planting, but the soil is not rich in minerals," says Savrinisso Hafizova, a doctor dedicated to improving the health of women and children in the valley. "Because the Rasht Valley is very mountainous and there's a lot of rain and [also] snow in winter, it washes away all the minerals like iron and iodine."
The result is a diet low in the micronutrients that are needed for healthy physical and mental development - and desperately high rates of afflictions such as anaemia and goitre, which blight people's lives.
And now the people of the Rasht Valley have a new harsh reality to confront - the global economic crisis.
Living in an isolated region four hours' drive from the capital, Dushanbe, the valley's population relies almost entirely on remittances sent back from Russia, where hundreds of thousands of Tajik men work in the construction industry.
Up to an estimated 95 per cent of the region's income is derived from these remittances. But the revenue flow has all but stopped, as Russia, like the rest of the world, tries to cope with the financial downturn.
Impact on education
More impoverished than ever, many parents have been forced to take their children out of school to try and make ends meet. (In a sign of the severity of the situation, Tajikistan's president advised people to stock up on food to protect themselves from starvation, according to news reports this week.)
"My husband's worked is Russia for a year as a welder," says one mother, Lola Khayrieva. "And twice, he's sent just $100 home. He hasn't sent more because he says there's a financial crisis in Russia."
As a result, Ms. Khayrieva now sends her eldest daughter into the pastures to graze the family cow, even though she would rather send her to school.
"I want my children to be healthy in the future, to be well educated and to find a good job and career. I want them to be fulfilled in their lives," she says.
UNICEF makes a start
No one knows yet just how far remittances have fallen in the Rasht Valley. However, figures for the whole of Tajikistan suggest a reduction of perhaps 30 per cent; the figure in the valley itself is expected to be far higher.
The head of UNICEF's office in Dushanbe, Hongwei Gao, expresses particular concern for the valley's inhabitants.
"We would like to beef up our support to children," she says. "We would like to support more children, particularly in the Rasht Valley, because that is a region heavily dependent on remittances."
UNICEF has made a start by supporting a programme to reduce the incidence of goitre amongst the valley's population. Using a small testing kit supplied by UNICEF, a local doctor is teaching women how to test the salt they buy in the markets for iodine. Goitre is caused by iodine deficiency.
It's no more than a start, of course, but with remittances from Russia now falling month after month, market prices soaring and local jobs ever more scarce, the bountiful season merely disguises the urgency and the magnitude of the task that lies ahead.