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Gas Blasts Claim Tajik Victims

Casualties are mounting in Tajikistan where keeping warm in winter has deadly consequences.
By IWPR Central Asia

On a cold day in late January, 22-year-old Saidkhon Karimov lit the gas stove to warm his flat on the western outskirts of the Tajik capital Dushanbe.


Several hours later, as they do twice a day, Dushanbe authorities turned off the gas supply to the city’s residential buildings – most of which have no central heating, leaving gas cookers as the only source of heat.


When the gas went out, Karimov didn’t notice that the switch was still on, so when he turned on a light the next morning, it sparked a terrible explosion that ripped through the flat.


He died several days later at the National Burns Centre, NBC, becoming the third person killed by gas explosions in the capital since the beginning of the year. The NBC has treated 27 people, the majority of them injured by gas, during that period, and 84 more in the last five months of 2004, 10 of whom died.


Islom Azizov lost his life after celebrating the birth of his first child.


Like Karimov, Azizov and his wife Sitora turned on the gas cooker to heat their home. They then went out for the night but neglected to turn off the burners. When they arrived back the following morning a powerful gas explosion blew out the windows and doors of the flat and threw Azizov from the fourth-floor window. He died when a concrete slab fell on him from above, while Sitora suffered burns to 15 per cent of her body.


The smell of gas was impossible to detect, because the special additives once added to Tajik gas to give it a distinctive odour are no longer used in an effort to cut costs.


For over a decade, Dushanbe and other major cities and regions of Tajikistan have been without central heating and have been forced to rely on gas stoves or portable electric cookers to provide heat. Gas, however, is often the only source of warmth in sub-zero temperatures as Tajikistan’s electricity network collapses under the weight of added demand from portable units.


Gas is restricted by government authorities, who cut off all supplies to residential buildings during the warm months from May to November. In the autumn and winter, it is turned on for three hours in the morning and for a further four hours in the evening.


This rationing is due in part to the enormous debts that Tajiks owe to the country’s gas companies, currently estimated at around 122 million somoni (47.8 million US dollars).


Payment for gas use and other municipal services is calculated at a fixed amount based on the number of residents in each property. However, in Dushanbe, a city of more than one million, just 220,000 people are registered, according to state-run gas supplier Tajikgaz. Since the company is not earning enough from consumers, it does not have the funds to pay its suppliers in Uzbekistan, where the fuel is produced, and this leads to an intermittent flow of gas through the pipeline.


Complicating the situation in Dushanbe is the large number of rural dwellers who left the countryside during the civil war and moved to the city.


“Rural residents are not used to paying for water and gas,” said a Tajikgaz employee. “In their villages they used water from wells and fuel that they gathered in fields or mountains. In the city they economise on matches by leaving the gas burners on.”


Adding to the problem is the authorities’ refusal to pay for repairs to buildings damaged by accidental gas explosions.


Widow and mother of four Kamalgul Yusupova is among several people in her Dushanbe block who can’t afford to fix their flats following a nearby gas blast.


“My pension and children’s benefit comes to 24 somoni [eight dollars] which is not even enough for food. Three years ago we had our gas turned off altogether because of debts, and we have had to suffer because of the explosion in the neighbouring apartment,” she said.


Tajikgaz promises gas will be supplied 24 hours a day by 2008, when all consumers have gas meters, ensuring everyone pays for the amount they use. But this also presents a problem since the cost of the meter itself is around 27 dollars, too expensive for most Tajiks to install.


In the meantime, Tajikgaz continues to run a public education campaign on radio, television and in newspapers explaining the precautionary measures needed when dealing with gas. This goes largely ignored, the company admits, and the casualties continue to mount.


Surgeon Alisher Umarov, head of the NBC, said that treating patients with deep burns is an expensive and difficult process, lasting two or three months and costing more than 180 dollars.


“We have to carry out difficult operations almost every day, but the skill of experienced surgeons and our medical supplies are not sufficient to save patients with burns to over 60 per cent of their skin,” he said.


55-year-old Dushanbe resident Murodali Sharipov describes the gas restrictions as incomprehensible.


“While they see what their decision to economise on gas leads to, they do not change this practice,” Sharipov said. “Can destroyed and unrepaired apartments, human casualties and the damaged health of our fellow citizens really cost less than gas?”


Valentina Kasymbekova is an IWPR correspondent in Dushanbe.


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