Drought Devastates Region

Central Asia has been hit by one of the worst droughts in living memory

Drought Devastates Region

Central Asia has been hit by one of the worst droughts in living memory

An unprecedented drought in Central Asia has left millions of people facing famine and disease.

Tajikistan and the autonomous republic of Karalpakstan in Uzbekistan have been worst hit by the natural disaster which has devastated the region's economy

Up to three million people in Tajikistan are threatened with starvation. In Karalpakstan, 90 per cent of the republic's agriculture has been destroyed.

"People aren't going hungry yet, as they have small stores of fruit and vegetables, but the situation will change in a few weeks and many of them may be faced with real hunger," said Roger Bracke, Red Cross official in Dushanbe.

Bracke is part of an international group of experts assessing the impact of the drought in Tajikistan which, they believe, is the worst for over 70 years.

Over the last five months there has been no rainfall. Vast plots of agricultural land have been destroyed. As a result, Tajikistan may only harvest 250,000 tons of grain, well short of the half a million the country needs annually.

Officials say the Tajik agricultural sector has already lost $48.6 million and believe the final figure is likely to be much higher.

"In the first few weeks of the drought, I didn't think there was a famine threat. Now I'm afraid the situation is really critical," a senior agricultural ministry official said.

According to Bracke, conditions in many regions are horrifying: people have no food and can't sow next year's crops. The poor standard of living even before the drought, he said, and the shortage of clean water has only worsened the situation. In addition, Tajikistan is still feeling the after-effects of the civil war which entirely destroyed the economy of the country.

There are fears that half the population of the country, around three million people, is facing famine.

The Red Cross is now appealing to the international community to assist the drought victims. "People have limited resources, and they won't be able to get by without outside help this winter," said Djura Imomzoda, President of the Tajik Red Cross.

The appeal is calling for 22.6 million Swiss Francs to assist 250,000 inhabitants of the Southern Khatlon and Northern Leninabad oblasts, two of the most badly hit areas.

The plan is to distribute food aid over a period of eight months. Those worst affected will receive flour, oil and seeds. "Priority will be given to those farmers and families with many children who don't have breadwinners," said Imomzoda. "These people need outside assistance most."

According to the plan, each farmer will be given 100 kilos of seeds enabling him to sow at least half a hectare of land.

"We hope our appeal will be successful," said Bracke. "It must be successful if we're to save lives. As a result of the drought, life has turned into a genuine struggle for existence, into a struggle to feed one's children."

In addition to the Red Cross appeal, Tajikistan has also officially appealed to the international community for assistance. The US was the first country to respond, sending the equivalent of $33.9 million of aid. Germany has allocated 1,353 million German marks for the purchase of 1,500 tons of flour, 70 tons of cooking oil and 30 tons of salt and other goods.

During his visit to some of the worst affected areas of the country, Bracke said he was astonished by the hospitality of the drought victims, "If these people were prepared to share their last crusts with us, then we must share what we have with them."

Karakalpakistan's agrarian-based economy has suffered 50 million US dollars worth of damage as a result of the natural disaster, according to the Ekosan international ecological fund.

The situation is so bad that government officials say this year there will be no harvest of rice - the republic's main crop - and only 50 per cent of Uzbekistan's cotton needs will be met.

Ekosan and the Asian Bank of Development have allocated 10 million and 3 million sum respectively for the drought victims. An aid programme is also being developed by the Uzbek government.

"Some 48,000 families have been left without their main source of income - everything these people planted in their allotments and fields has died," said Glikeria Kim, an Ekosan official.

Many farmers have been forced to kill their livestock as all their pastures have dried up.

Half the rural population are suffering shortages of drinking water. "As a result people are drinking very poor water and there has been a surge in infectious diseases," said Kim.

Many fear starvation awaits them unless conditions improve. "Our people are only surviving by tending to their allotments, growing things like potatoes and storing them for the winter," said Vera Plutto from Nukus, the capital of Karakalpakstan.

Khubbiniyaz Ashirbekov, chairman of the Nukus branch of the International Save the Aral Fund fears, "this year there's no rice at all, and that means starvation for our republic."

Karalpakstan has long suffered environmental problems. It borders the Aral Sea which has shrunk alarmingly over the last few decades, inflicting severe damage on the republic's flora and fauna. The demise of the Aral has also severely hit Karalpakstan's fishing and fish-farming industries.

Somehow the republic has adapted to the harsh conditions, but this year's drought is a major blow and could leave the population facing abject poverty.

Vladimir Davlatov and Karina Insarova are regular IWPR contributors

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