Tajikistan - The yellow planet

News and Press Release
Originally published
An account of a media mission and its findings in the drought affected country

By : Donato Kiniger-Passigli
Photos : courtesy of James Hill

Dushanbe - September 2000

A group of some twenty journalists, representing major international media, arrived in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, at the peak of the worst drought that this land-locked country experienced in three-quarters of a century. An unprecedented disaster that is unfolding in front of its eye-witnesses. A country that used to be green, in one year turned into a semi-desert land, impoverished and forgotten, with the yellowish contours of an arid planet.

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The UN office for the coordination of humanitarian affairs (OCHA) organized a media mission to bring attention to the plight of Tajikistan. At the same time, on September 17, an emergency appeal (donor alert) was launched asking the international community to contribute urgently $ 76 million needed to provide life-saving assistance to 1.2 million people severely affected by the drought.

Ross Mountain, Assistant Emergency Relief Coordinator of the UN said at a press conference in Dushanbe that Tajikistan, a former soviet republic of 6 million in Central Asia, is facing a humanitarian catastrophe. "The humanitarian situation in Tajikistan epitomizes the consequences of slow moving emergencies such as droughts. Next to Afghanistan, Tajikistan is the hardest hit country in the region". Mountain added that these were two among a dozen or so countries affected by the drought. He urged the international community to act immediately to avert further deterioration of an already alarming situation. Deaths from famine, diseases, and population displacements were some of the consequences in sight. The drought is currently affecting three million people, nearly half of the population of the country in one of the poorest regions of the world.

Those consequences of the drought and the precarious humanitarian situation were to be checked directly by the journalists who traveled for a week through the northern and southern parts of the country. The tour was prepared by the UN Country team based in Dushanbe with the contribution of all humanitarian agencies.

Arid land and fragile infrastructure

For the travelling team, the town and periphery of Dushanbe were the first sights of a country in distress, desperately trying to reemerge from a five-year long civil war. Empty markets, a deserted zoo, an opera house in disuse: just the first signs of a deep crisis. On the way to Shaartuz, a town near the Afghan border, clear signals of the soil aridity were in front of the convoy of UN vehicles leaving Dushanbe. There was no snow on top of the mountains which average 3,500 meters. Cotton plants which used to be the single mono-culture of this ex soviet republic (and basic staple of its economy), are stunted at the time of their harvest. Pale yellow bushes cover the rocks along the road. "I cannot recognize my country - said Sharali Toshmodorov- the Tajik interpreter in one of the jeeps who added "I was here a few months ago and there was still life around in the country, now everything is dying". It would be hard to deny this evidence.

The Kathlon region used to be the most fertile of the Tajik valleys. Three hours south of Dushanbe, this area used to produce wheat in rain-fed plains. Now everything is dry. Not a single drop of water fell for several months. In the village of Pobedi the irrigation channel is not functioning, there is no electricity and the population of over 1,000 has almost no water for personal use. There is only one well for 180 households. The water is dirty and among the malnourished children there is clear evidence of water-born diseases, such as diarrhea, on top of the endemic malaria and typhoid . This village was severely damaged during the civil war, most of the population returned in 1998 from refugee camps in Afghanistan and they are now facing misery and abandonment. "Something could be done -said Yusuf Ockildiev, an agronomist- bore-holes could be drilled if we had the right equipment, at a depth of 75 meters we could find drinking water for this people". But at present, this seems to be a dream. It appeared evident that failure is engulfing all state services and activities. There is no water and there are no means to bring it to the people. An image of total collapse of state infrastructure which became even more transparent in the subsequent visits to other villages and communities.

In the abandoned village of Rudaki, women come every day from nearby villages to work their land. There is very little that they can do in this arid land beaten by sun rays in a temperature of over 40 degrees Celsius. No crops can be seen and the irrigation system is out of order. Women still come here to mark a presence, to tell their men that they should have faith in the future of their families. Arable land is all they can borrow from the state and it is their only mean of self-support. But now there is no water, there are no seeds and no fuel to transport tools to this land. Looking at the malnourished children grappling next to their mothers, it becomes clear that the drought can turn easily into famine.

Mohamed Megan, the area manager of the UN in Shartuuz province, talked about a "looming disaster with impending famine". The main cause is the drought "There is no moisture in the soil - he commented- the water-table is not recharged and aquifers are depleted". But it is also an educational problem which has not been tackled after the end of the soviet era. "During the Soviet-Union - Megan explained- the people, the Kolkotz members, did not have to pay for water. Water was a service provided by the central authorities at no cost to the local communities. Nowadays, water is a product as many others and it needs to be maintained and paid for. This concept is not yet fully understood". In effect the water management system is in disarray and the irrigation channels are not being repaired. Most of the water hand-pumps, in the villages around Shartuuz, have been damaged due to their over-use or mishandling.

The problems of the villagers are extremely acute due to their poverty. This year crop failed almost completely and there is little grain in stock to face the winter. UN and Red Cross movement (IFRC) experts agree that unless something is done to bring aid to the people, those villagers will all suffer starvation in three months time.

Deserted schools - Beginning of an exodus

Driving north-east towards the town of Kulyab, the convoy passed through the Kangurt valley that usually relies on rain-fed agricultural products. This year crops are lost due to the lack of rain. The town of Sovietsky is particularly impoverished due to a staggering economy fully dependant on the agricultural output. An appalling sight is the village school: no glasses at the windows, no heating system for the rigid winters, no didactic materials and not even benches for the young students. All is left are remnants of 50 years old soviet desks, reassembled with a few nails and a corroded black-board. Children are roaming around while the few remaining teachers are trying to make ends meet with a salary of less than two dollars a month. This is not the drought effect, but it is a drainage of the last available resources and of ran-down infrastructures. The school deputy says that 20% of the students have dropped out of school because of the drought and the need to assist their parents.

Another image of absolute poverty and abandonment before leaving the southern Kulyab region. An old man in the village of Vatan did not remember the last time he received his pension of 4,000 Tajik rubles a month (less than two dollars) and already sold his last cow to support his 5 sons and 14 grandchildren. The population of about 10,000 relies entirely on rain-fed harvest which completely failed this year. Lots of villagers left already bringing their few possessions with them, including the corrugated roofs of their houses.

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The north of the country is not in better conditions. A sturdy Yak-40 of Tajik airlines (one of the few still flying of a cannibalized fleet, aground) brought the group to the city of Khudjiand, in the northern Leninabad region. Once more we noticed that there was no snow on top of the mountains. The north was spared from the effects of the civil war but now the drought has severely impoverished the region. In the village of Gazantarak, 76 year-old Vokhid Jaborov, was looking at the fruit trees in his garden that were dying because of lack of water. The village has 2,500 hectares of land that produced abundant fruit and vegetables. This early yield is now lost. Vokhid Jaborov has four hens and drying outside his house a few apples and nuts which should support him during the winter. Too little even for this former soldier used to fight for his life.

Vulnerable to "small disasters"

Matthew Kahane, UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Tajikistan, is trying to put this country on the map. "This is a country lost in the middle of Central Asia, the roof of the world, over 4,700 Km away from Riga, the port on the Baltic which is the only access we can use to bring in humanitarian assistance via railroad - he said and added that a two step approach should be adopted while assisting this country- " We need immediately to bring in food, water, medicines to face the emergency and later we should help the country to develop under a different management system, assisting the people in using their resources more rationally and restoring a water delivery system. Now, according to Kahane, it is time to mobilize the international community and to bring seeds and water to these dispossessed people that would become even more weak and destitute if this international help would not come.

This is also the opinion of Lotte Relander, head of the IFRC delegation in Dushanbe. " The problem of Tajikistan is not only the drought. Poverty, poor health conditions and chronic diseases compound this crisis affecting a population which is very vulnerable to any small disaster". "The worst of the drought- Relander continued - will come when fruits and vegetables will disappear from the markets and people will have nothing to eat".

The devolution which this country is facing is also implicit in the words of Tajik Foreign Minister Talbak Nazarov who spoke to the team of journalists on this critical situation affecting already half of the population. He said that the five-year long civil war had cost the country $7 billion directly and that GNP was down to 40 percent of its 1990 level while the population increased by one million. "Many industrial plants work only up to 20% of their potential - he said , and pointing to the brain-drain that affected the country added that - specialized workers already left, it will take 15 years before reaching the economic level of the nineties". He also referred to the cotton production as mostly affected by the drought " This is our main export and represents up to 20% of our GNP. The price went down to $ 900 per ton and last year we produced only one third of the over 900,000 tons produced each year in the nineties. This year we will produce even less".

Tajikistan is far from recovering from all the tragedies of its recent past. Certainly this is a country that needs all possible international assistance and the warning signals that UN flagged through this media mission will hopefully meet with a congruous response. Ross Mountain said to the donors community that the time to act is now. The donor alert for $ 76 million represents only the most urgent requirements of the Tajik people.

In an extremely fragile situation, in a region that is prone to ethnic confrontations and troubled by drug trafficking and terrorism, peace and stability will depend also on the response that the UN appeal on behalf of the people of Tajikistan will get. This drought related emergency deserves the world attention.

UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
To learn more about OCHA's activities, please visit https://www.unocha.org/.