Tajikistan

Team finds hope in scorched Tajikistan

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In a country severely affected by drought, we found Hope. We had travelled for days through Kathlon oblast, in south-west Tajikistan. Under a burning sun, with temperatures rising as high as 50=B0C, we witnessed mile after mile of desert, only occasionally scattered with patches of green, irrigated cotton land, the rare crop that can survive the extreme heat.
There has been no rain here for more than five months. Thousands of hectares of wheat have been scorched by the sun. This year's harvest is bad; far worse than the two previous ones, already total failures by most standards. Hunger has become familiar to many Tajik families who already sold belongings and whatever livestock they had to survive the 1999 winter. We were privileged to see the last cow, the last sheep, the last chicken that small farmers sometimes still had. This year, they told us, they will not sell. For there is nothing left.

No one really knows how they will buy the wheat they need to bake bread, the most substantial part of the two daily meals they take. Over 310,000 metric tonnes of wheat will be needed to prevent many people from starving. The smaller farmers who live from the products of their small rain-fed plots but also large parts of the urban population, unemployed, underpaid or worse, not paid at all for months as a result of the failing economy. Their suffering is perhaps less visible but very real.

For now, the Tajiks still have fruit, in abundance even. Beautiful melons, red and white and grapes. But until when?

And then we met Hope. Hidden away in the house she shares with her husband's relatives. At first, a little shy, but beautifully proud. She told us about her father's truck that has broken down and took with it his income, some 10,000 Tajik roubles per month (less than 5 US dollars). She also told about the two sacks of wheat her family needs per month to buy the daily bread. She told us about the cost of medicines. Of shoes. Of clothes. And shared with us her worries for the future. Her father, her brothers, her son.

Hope just smiled at us when we asked : but how about tomorrow ? How will you cope ? She smiled and quietly said : "my name is Hope".

Situation worse than expected

"What we have seen is worse than we expected. Most of the wheat fields that are mainly on rain-fed land have given scanty harvest, in some places - zero", says Roger Bracke, leader of the Federation assessment team, visiting the areas that are most affected by the drought in Tajikistan.

As a result of the findings of the assessment mission, the International Federation is considering launching an appeal for humanitarian aid to assist 250,000 people in seven rayons in the Khatlon and Leninabad oblasts. The assistance will cover the urgent needs in food and seeds. Working with the Red Crescent Society of Tajikistan, wheat flour and oil will be provided for eight months to the most vulnerable. Food distribution has to be completed before the coming winter closes an access to the remote areas - 90 per cent of Tajikistan is mountainous.

"People's coping mechanisms are very limited, and they will not get through the harsh winter without external assistance," says Dr. Inomzoda, President of the Red Crescent Society of Tajikistan. "A large part of the Tajik population is under the real threat of starvation. The priority is for farmers, who were growing wheat on non-irrigated land, and multichildren families without a breadwinner. These people need urgent relief assistance," he adds.

The assessment team has visited 14 rayons and met not only with farmers and local people, but also with health centres, hospitals, pharmacies and markets. It has found that the dire situation facing the country is exacerbated by a general high level of poverty among the population, low access to clean drinking water and sanitation facilities, and generally poor levels of health among a large part of the population with high levels of chronic malnutrition and anemia.

"All these problems sustain the high level of vulnerability of the population. But the drought compounds this vulnerability and is definitely a disaster in its own right," says Bracke.

"People are not starving today, because fruit and vegetables are still available. But in six to eight weeks that will be very different and the most vulnerable will starve. It is crucial to start preparing a large-scale humanitarian operation now," says Bracke.

The operation will focus on providing wheat to make bread, supplying seeds to plant, providing access to safe drinking water, and raising awareness of public health messages on a wide scale, focusing on diarrhoea, typhoid and malaria control. Patches of stagnant water - resulting from people trying to plant and irrigate small crops of rice - can spread disease.