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Decrepit Water System Heightens Disease Risk

The risk of sporadic outbreaks of infectious diseases in southern Tajikistan is growing every year due to the country’s decrepit water system which supplies poor-quality drinking water, NBCentralAsia experts warn.

Towards the end of May, Aziya Plus radio reported that a typhoid epidemic had broken out in Kulyab, with 62 confirmed cases in the town and a further 17 in the surrounding area.

Just 15 cases of typhoid were registered in the Kulyab area in 2005, with the number climbing to 26 in 2006.

The current outbreak has now been contained, according to the health ministry, which has reminded people that the only way they can protect themselves from the disease is to observe personal hygiene recommendations and only drink water that has been boiled.

However, NBCentralAsia observers say that epidemics like this will continue to flare up unless the water supply system is made safer.

Navruz Jafarov, a leading expert at the sanitation and epidemiology bureau of the health ministry, has told NBCentralAsia that people were infected with the bacteria that cause typhoid fever after breakdowns in Kulyab’s mains water network allowed the water to be contaminated.

“Water gets contaminated when accidents occur, and this was the case here,” said Jafarov. “The water mains in Kulyab were laid as long ago as 1939 and have never been given a total overhaul since then.”

According to the water ministry, the central water supply system in Tajikistan is made up of 657 major pipelines, most built during the Soviet era and many of them not renovated since the Seventies.

The number of people with access to clean water is falling year by year due to decaying pipes and failing pumps and other installations across the country’s entire water network.

The water in Hatlon region in the south, which includes Kulyab, is the worst in Tajikistan, and there over half of the 254 supply lines fail to meet sanitation standards.

Tajikistan’s frequent electricity blackouts also damage water quality, because pumps are used to maintain a vacuum in the pipes but when the power goes off, they stop and the pressure drops, the disinfection process stops, and contaminated water can get in.

During winter, the Kulyab sub-region of Hatlon gets no more than two hours of electricity a day.

NBCentralAsia experts say the water is not being properly disinfected even when the pumps are working. The chlorinated lime produced in Tajikistan contains only 12 per cent chlorine, used to kill bacteria in water. By international standards, that figure should be at least 25 per cent. Nevertheless, Negmat Iskandarov, chief engineer at the chemicals firm Tajikchimprom, says it is possible to solve the problem by simply adding a higher percentage of chlorine per litre of water.

Many parts of Tajikistan, outside the major cities Dushanbe and Khujand, do not use liquid chlorine to make water safe to drink, even though this is much more effective than chlorinated lime.

Water industry experts agree that even though the network in the capital Dushanbe is better than most of other areas, it still does not fully meet safety standards.

Mirzo Khushvaqtov, chief engineer at the water supply firm Dushanbevodokanal, told NBCentralAsia that a third of Dushanbe residents receive untreated water, and that massive investment is needed to completely restore the capital’s supply system.

“Big money is needed for repairs,” he said. “Dushanbevodokanal does not have the funds, and needs investment. Even though water charges have gone up, that is not enough to cover our costs.”

(News Briefing Central Asia draws comment and analysis from a broad range of political observers across the region.)

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