Meet the villagers in Tajikistan who are putting disaster risk knowledge into practice

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For over a decade, the European Union has funded disaster risk reduction initiatives across Central Asia, which is one of the most disaster prone regions in the world, vulnerable to earthquakes, floods, yearly landslides, mudflows, and droughts. In central Tajikistan’s Rasht Valley the NGOs Mercy Corps and Welthungerhilfe have been providing awareness training on the risks the communities face, and how they can minimise these risks. The villagers are now applying this newly gained knowledge in their day to day life.

By Pierre Prakash, Regional Information Officer, European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations @eu_echo

Father of four AbduRahman Mahmadiev lives with his family in Qosht Tegirmen, a small village located high up in the mountains above the Rasht Valley, a particularly scenic region of Tajikistan. However, in these parts, beauty often means danger: located at the bottom of a long slope, his house is particularly vulnerable to avalanches during the winter. Having lived here for years, AbduRahman is fully aware of the risk and keeps a close eye on the snow level above, should a disaster strike. Last winter, he took two decisions he had never taken before: first, he prepared a “grab bag” with essential belongings - “particularly IDs and cash,” he explains with a smile - in case the family needed to rush out of their house; and second, he eventually moved his entire family to a neighbour’s house further away from the danger area for a month. While they were away, an avalanche crashed right next to his property, missing the house by only a few metres.

When asked why he took those steps this year and never before, AbduRahman's answer is clear: “because of Dipecho trainings last year, I was more aware of the risks, and more prepared,” he says. Dipecho is a worldwide preparedness programme funded by the European Commission's Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations department, which focusses on preparing communities to cope with and recover from recurring natural disasters. In this region, the EU’s partners Mercy Corps and Welthungerhilfe (WHH) have been running such awareness trainings for several years, but only reached this particular village in 2016. AbduRahman had not been able to attend himself, but he still received all the information provided at the time thanks to his energetic village head, Ravshanbek Bashirov.

“Not everyone can find the time to go to these sessions which are organised for several villages, so when I came back from them I would systematically organise a meeting at the village level to pass on what I had learned,” Ravshanbek explains. Since then, he organises meetings with the entire community at the first sign of risk, to discuss the situation and take a collective decision. This is how AdbuRahman’s family decided to move, along with four other households, after other families offered to shelter them in one of these meetings. A few months later in June, three other families also moved to neighbouring houses for several weeks due to a heightened risk of mudflows in the area. A youth volunteer group has also been formed to help families during such evacuations, work on clearing landslides, or lend a hand to surrounding villages when needed, in coordination with local authorities.

Thanks to training sessions on ecological awareness, the villagers of Qosht Tegirmen have also changed some of their old habits, which they now realise were putting them at risk. “We stopped using the slopes which are immediately above the village for cattle grazing, as we now know that land degradation can trigger more landslides,” explains Ravshanbek. Inspired by a demonstration plot created by WHH, the villagers planted rows of fruit trees in the land above the village. The trees reduce the risk of an avalanche, while the villagers can earn income from the fruits at the same time.

“Having lived here for generations, we are of course aware that there are risks of landslides and avalanches, but in the past we were not so concerned as the weather patterns were more stable and we knew what to expect and when," observes Faizullah Risgulov, head of the sub-district in which the village is located. "Now, with climate change, things are increasingly unpredictable, so we need to be more alert. These trainings have provided us with new knowledge and simple skills to survive in these conditions. So today we are both more concerned because there are new risks, but less afraid because we feel more confident in dealing with them.”