Tajiks Pull the Plug on Cafés
In the Tajik capital Dushanbe, the sight of flickering candles casting their golden glow inside the city’s few working restaurants is not a sign that romantic dinners are again in fashion.
They are a consequence of a government decision on January 26 to cut the electricity supply to places of entertainment to meet the worst power shortage in years.
Since then, such establishments have closed their doors entirely, or soldiered on by candlelight. Those with coal-fired stoves or private generators are considered lucky indeed.
For café and restaurant owners, Tajikistan’s endemic power crises are a nightmare. This winter the shortage of electricity has been even worse than usual as exceptionally cold weather has increased demand across Central Asia. (See IWPR reports on this: Cold Snap Wreaks Havoc on Central Asian Power, RCA No. 529, 31-Jan-08, and Sparks Fly as Tajiks Endure Power Cuts, RCA No. 528, 25-Jan-08.)
Abdusattor, the owner of a now half-empty café, said he had been forced to lay off staff because his income had fallen by half.
Evenings are normally the times when cafes make most of their money. But now the power cuts have driven away customers, and Abdusattor’s menu has been cut down to just a few hot dishes and salads.
“Even if this is only temporary, it's still going to hit the pockets of my staff,” he said. “They all have five or six children, and there are women who are the sole breadwinners for their families.”
Abdusattor said he would at least try to keep his doors open. Many other cafés and restaurants have simply shut and will not reopen until spring.
Zarina, 34, a waitress in the café, says she hopes she is not one of the unlucky ones who will be sent on an involuntary vacation.
She has two children to look after while her husband is away working in Russia. He does not send money home on a regular basis.
With her small daily salary and the snacks that she and the other workers are allowed to take home, Zarina can just about support her family.
It is not just cafés, restaurants and nightclubs that are suffering from the government decree. The restrictions also apply to shops, chemists’ shops, markets and public bathhouses.
Even the street lighting has gone, plunging the country into total darkness after nightfall.
The few lights visible in the evenings belong to factories, the fortunate owners of generators, or people who have broken the law by tapping into working power lines.
Life in the dark has brought new fears for people’s safety. Sharifamo, a young mother in Dushanbe, is worried about her children as they make their way home from school in the unlit streets.
Each evening, she goes to the bus stop near their house to meet them from school. Her children study in a second, afternoon shift at school and the schoolhouse is far from home, so they get back late.
“It's dangerous to go out in the evening now,” she said. “Yesterday one woman was hit by a car; I’m scared for my kids’ lives.”
Sharifamo added, “They should leave some street lights on till around 9 pm and only then turn them off”.
Shopkeepers and trading working uneven hours are also suffering economically from the power cuts.
Akram, who trades in the local flat bread, has seen his income drop markedly.
He buys his bread wholesale from the nearest bakery and delivers it piping hot by car to his customers. But now the bakery has slashed production because of the lack of electricity, and Akram has to tell his clients he is running short of bread.
Many bakeries are closed entirely. The city authorities in Dushanbe say that they have repeatedly urged bakers to switch to coal fires, but that their advice has been ignored.
Akram complains that he was unable to supply his sick daughter with medicine recently because the all-night chemist’s shop which until recently had carried on by candlelight was now closed in the evenings.
Some friendly neighbours managed to help Akram find the medicines he needed.
“I wish the chemists weren’t closed at night because both adults and children are getting ill in this cold weather,” he said.
Not everyone is complaining about the government’s action, however. Some families that had been without any power for weeks have seen their lights and heaters come back on after electricity was diverted away from retail businesses to domestic consumers.
Avvalmo Davlatshoeva, who lives in a residential district of Dushanbe, says she went for three weeks without power, but for the past week the lights in her apartment block have been back on.
“They did the right thing by closing these restaurants,” she said. “When we had no light, they were brightly lit and played loud music.”
Meanwhile, the population watches and waits to see when the crisis will finally be over.
Most of the country’s electricity comes from hydroelectric power stations that in turn rely on full reservoirs. But the rise in consumption over the harsh winter has drained the reservoirs. Energy sector representatives say the water in the giant Nurek reservoir, for example, has fallen to a mere six metres, a worryingly low level.
Eventually, glacial and snowmelt water will start flowing into mountain rivers, relieving the situation. But this will not take place until March or April.
In the meantime, there is talk of extending the current austerity regime beyond the initial February 10 deadline.
That may be too late for small businessmen like Akram. “The authorities always get something wrong. They make these mistakes and it’s mainly ordinary people who suffer,” he lamented.
Nafisa Pisarejeva is an IWPR contributor in Dushanbe.