Tajikistan: Disaster-prone communities need to be moved

DUSHANBE , 7 May 2007 (IRIN) - The lives of thousands of families who live in natural disaster-prone areas in rural Tajikistan are made miserable by the disasters, residents and officials say.

Abdul Gafur lives in Dagona, a village about half an hour's drive north of the Tajik capital, Dushanbe. The village is located on the banks of the Varzob river and on the mountain slopes, and is home to some 300 families.

He moved to the village from the south of the country, as his home had been flooded several times. "We came here about five months ago hoping that we would be away from floods and mudflows," he told IRIN in Dagona.

But that may not be the case, according to some Dagona residents who have lived there all their lives.

"Last year, the Varzob burst its banks and my home and land were flooded. The flooding did a lot of damage to my property. I had to rebuild many things," Davlat, another Dagona resident, told IRIN.

About a decade ago, many residents fled the village when water rose more than 1.5 m and flooded homes close to the banks.

"We had to run to the slopes of those mountains to save our lives and we left everything in our homes. Luckily no one died as a young woman saw the flood coming and alerted everyone," Davlat said.

Resettlement needed

Such concerns are not unusual for many villagers in the country where up to 12,000 settlements are located in disaster-prone areas and need to be resettled, Gulsara Poulatova, a senior adviser for the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction Central Asia, based in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, said.

"Tajikistan has almost all types of natural disasters, excluding tsunamis and volcanoes. They include earthquakes, landslides, floods and mudflows, avalanches and windstorms. The country suffers a lot from these natural disasters," Poulatova said.

According to the World Bank, each year the mountainous Central Asian state experiences around 50,000 landslides, some 5,000 tremors and earthquakes, and hundreds of avalanches and debris flows. These natural disasters exacerbate poverty and hinder economic progress in the impoverished country, where more than 40 percent of the population lives below the national poverty line.

A United Nations Disaster Assessment and Coordination (UNDAC) mission to the country in March 2006 said that some 85 percent of Tajikistan's area is threatened by mudflows and 32 percent of the area is situated in a high mudflow risk zone.

According to the European Commission's humanitarian aid department (ECHO), natural disasters have killed about 2,500 and affected some 5.5 million (almost 10 percent of the population) in central Asia over the past decade.

Population pressure

Poulatova cited the building of homes in risk areas related to rapid population growth, particularly in rural areas, as a major problem.

"The population is increasing and so is population density. If in the past there was a small village in an area with houses in proper places, now they [residents] are building houses for their elder sons in areas where there shouldn't be any buildings," she said

During Soviet times, the authorities monitored the situation and those building on high risk areas used to be fined. But since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, this has not been followed and enforced, the ISDR official added.

"So the number of natural disasters is not on the rise. The number of people building houses in risk areas is on the rise and thus increasing risk exposure," Poulatova said.

Some government officials who did not want to be identified conceded the problem. "It is a problem for us, but the thing is the country is 94 percent mountainous and there is a scarcity of land. Moreover, relocating people from high risk areas requires huge amounts of money which the government does not have," an official said. "The only hope is that donors will help us."