Water for the weary in Tajikistan

By Rita Plotnikova in Dushanbe, Tajikistan
The Tajik Red Crescent, in cooperation with the World Food Programme (WFP) and the British Department for International Development, is rebuilding irrigation systems in the south of Tajikistan following successful completion of a similar project in the north.

According to the latest International Crisis Group Report, competition for water is increasing in Central Asia adding tension to what is already an uneasy region. Agriculture is the mainstay of the region's economy, and thirsty crops such as cotton and rice require intensive irrigation.

Water use has increased rapidly since the Central Asian states became independent in 1991 and is now at an unsustainable level. Irrigation systems have decayed so severely that half of all the water never reaches crops, and several years of drought have cut available water by a fifth even as demand continues to soar. For Tajikistan, the poorest of the former Soviet states, water and irrigation present a serious problem threatening the survival capacity of households and exacerbating existing poverty.

Following the drought last year, in addition to food distribution, water and sanitation were essential elements of Red Cross and Red Crescent emergency operations.

Initially, four northern districts, the most affected by the drought, were identified for rehabilitation of their irrigation systems, crippled for over 10 years.

"When it became clear that we would be able to involve the communities in the construction and rehabilitation works," says Jackson Ndemena, Federation programme coordinator, "we managed to save a lot of funds, which were then spent on similar small scale projects in other villages, bringing the total number of beneficiaries who will have water on their fields and kitchen gardens this summer to 35,000 people," he said.

From the outset, the local population was involved in the operation. Almost half of those involved received food in exchange for their work on the project. "Even those who joined us later and did not have this incentive were very enthusiastic about the project that was returning life to our village," says Akhror Abrorov, a community leader.

With unemployment rates exceeding 60 per cent in rural Tajikistan, the project was a great opportunity for people to learn new skills, including maintenance of their water irrigation systems. The scope of work included bore hole development, supply and installation of submersible pumps, pipes and electrical switching gear. Outside specialists were only invited to supervise the technical jobs upon installation.

In addition to restoring water systems, the aim of the programme was to restore local capacity to help deal with future problems. The Tajik Red Crescent worked in cooperation with WFP and ECHO, the European Commission's Humanitarian Aid Office.

"With this project we tried to develop the feeling of ownership and responsibility for the maintenance of the system," said Ndemena. "Red Crescent volunteers also conducted water workshops to teach people how to use and save water in an economical way."

Today, the water is flowing in 13 villages across the north of Tajikistan, and the people in the south are keen to begin rebuilding their water systems.