Kyrgyz Regions Soldier on Without Power

People in outlying areas come up with ingenious if dangerous solutions to energy shortages.

Kyrgyz Regions Soldier on Without Power

People in outlying areas come up with ingenious if dangerous solutions to energy shortages.

As Kyrgyzstan endures serial power cuts for a second winter in a row, residents of outlying towns have suffered worse than most.

When Soviet-era central heating systems fail and the electricity goes off, people often turn to makeshift coal- or wood-burning stoves. But they run a high risk of burning their homes down or poisoning themselves with the toxic fumes.

In recent months the capital Bishkek has experienced blackouts, but these have been shared out on a district-by-district basis. The schedule of blackouts has been in place since last August in an effort to store water in the Toktogul reservoir, which feeds the country’s main hydroelectric facility.

Rural areas have suffered more prolonged outages of up to 12 hours a day, yet there at least people have the option of gathering firewood, coal and the traditional dried animal dung to burn in their private houses.

Those in between – people who live in apartments in towns away from the capital – are least able to cope, since their housing blocks were designed to run on inbuilt centralised heating and electricity networks and they have few other options when the system grinds to a halt.

The town of Naryn, located in the mountains of eastern Kyrgyzstan, has very cold winters with average temperatures of minus 18 degrees Celsius this winter. Local electricity provider VostokElektro says the power was turned off for two-hour stretches twice a day from December to January 17, when the blackouts stopped. Over in the west, in the town of Talas, power company Severelektro reports that power cuts in January lasted four hours a day, an improvement on the previous month when there were blackouts of ten hours a day

As weather conditions ease after temperatures that dropped into the minus twenties, IWPR reporters interviewed urban residents in various parts of the country to see how they made it through the worst of the winter.


Although in theory, blocks of flats are heated by a Soviet-era network of hot water piped in from municipal heating plants, the system fell into disuse long ago in most places. Residents of many multistorey blocks in the smaller towns cut their heating systems off from the centralised network of heating pipes because they did not want to pay for a service that was at best lukewarm.

Instead, they turned to electric heaters, which cost them less in bills. However, power outages now rule this method out for many hours of the day.

The head of Jalalabad’s municipal heating company, Tynybek Kozubayev, says the firm now supplies hot water to only 16 of the multistorey residential blocks in this southern town; the residents of the other 20 have cut the pipes connecting them to the system.

“We can now do nothing to help them,” he said. “If we decide to provide heating to their blocks, which are disconnected from the central system, what will happen is that the buildings will be flooded with hot water.”

In neighbouring Osh, managers at the local power station which also provides the city with hot water insist there have been no problems and that people installed stoves in their flats only because they wanted an additional heating source.

However, Osh resident Asilbek Seitov is among those who no longer use the central heating system.

“I decided to cut our block’s heating system off from the central one many years ago because we were getting no heating at all. I spent 9,500 soms [about 250 US dollars] on a Chinese gas stove; that’s twice my monthly wage,” he said.

In Talas in western Kyrgyzstan, only nine of the 53 apartment blocks have been disconnected. But as the head of heating firm TeploKommunEnergo, Nikolai Triboy, explained, those homes that still use the system have suffered intermittent breakdowns in their hot water supply over the winter.

The firm operates four boiler-houses, three fired by coal and one – by far the largest – burning fuel oil.

“We had to stop the boiler-houses because of electricity cuts; our water heaters weren’t working and the fuel oil froze. The water heaters subsequently broke down again and some of the pipes burst. We spent the whole of December repairing the system and we were unable to provide the apartment blocks with heating,” said Triboy.

As for the nine disconnected blocks, he said, “They want to get their blocks reconnected but it will be difficult and very expensive. We will need 100,000 soms [2,500 US dollars] to connect one block to the heating system.”

In Batken in the southwest, meanwhile, the heating system that supplied the town’s 25 apartment blocks disintegrated years ago when the company closed down.


Other people have been doubly hit because of the shortage of natural gas, which means they cannot cook. Kyrgyzstan imports all its natural gas from Uzbekistan, but has halved the amount of gas it is buying this year because its neighbour has raised prices so high.

When the heating system is out and both electricity and gas supplies are at best intermittent, the commonest solution is to install a “burjuika”, a cast-iron stove that burns coal or wood. These were last in widespread use in the 1920s, before the Soviets installed communal heating. The stoves are best suited to one-storey detached houses, but are now a feature of many high-rise apartments, their home-made metal chimneys poking out of the window.

Temperatures in Osh are somewhat warmer than in northern parts of Kyrgyzstan, but apartments are still chilly when there is no heating or electricity.

“I’ve had to use a stove, and now I cannot imagine life without it in this cold,” said Kalyk Bargybayev who lives in a multi-storey block in Osh. “I use it to cook food, and my children sit around it when they’re cold.”

Parakhat Suyunova from Batken, also in southern Kyrgyzstan, recalled how she put an old pair of boots into her stove one day when she ran out of coal. The resulting fumes stained the upstairs flat’s washing a sooty black.


The stoves are both dirty and dangerous. According to Muhiddin Mamasadikov, the deputy mayor of Osh, burjuikas are technically illegal, but people end up using them as they are better than nothing.

Osh’s deputy fire chief, Gulamiddin Bazarbaev, says seven out of ten fires happen in high-rise blocks, and last year 70 were attributed to burjuikas and other stoves.

“Many people are now using gas stoves imported from Iran,” he added. “However, if you want to install one, you need to call in a technician, as any mistake with the installation can cause a major explosion.”

At Osh’s main hospital, Mirlan Narmatov, the head of the burns unit, said most of the patients brought in during the cold spell were children.

“To keep their children warm, parents use electric heaters and paraffin lamps, which often cause fires and lead to severe burns,” he said. “With the onset of the cold weather, little children make up the majority of our patients.

“For example, right now we have a ten-month-old baby in a very poor state. Because the room was cold, his parents put an electric heater close to his beshik [traditional wooden cradle], which caught fire. We had another case where the parents placed a paraffin lamp too close to their baby’s cradle when the electricity was switched off. The cradle caught fire and the baby died of burns.”

The metal tubing rigged up as chimneys for burjuikas are prone to leaks, and carbon monoxide poisoning is on the increase. Last month, Dmitry Denisov, deputy head of accident and emergency services in Bishkek, told the news agency that 72 people in Kyrgyzstan suffered carbon monoxide poisoning in the last three months of 2008, compared with 29 in the same period the previous year.

Tezekbay Baysheriev, a Second World War veteran from Naryn, admits that the people living above him complain about the smoke from his stove, but he says he has no other option if he is to heat his flat.


Other apartment block residents have resorted to even more unusual methods for creating warmth – some heat up bricks and place them under tables or beds, while others make “radiators” by filling containers such as vacuum flasks with boiling water. Some have resorted to cooking on fires outside in the communal yard.

In Talas, the majority of residents have electric water heaters which they use whenever the power is on. Local man Kanybek Balybaev explained how he connected his heater up to the wall radiators that belonged to the now-defunct central heating system.

In the northeastern town of Karakol, the administrative centre for Issyk Kul region, the electricity was off for ten hours a day, although things improved in January.

Local pensioner Mahbuba Ismailova does her best to warm herself with a poorly-insulated heater, but whenever a power cut begins, she wraps herself in a blanket and goes to bed.

Asel Sagymbaeva, a mother of three from Talas, dresses her children in warm clothes and wraps them in blankets when the electricity goes off.

Her family is fortunate to still be connected to the centralised heating system, but it only works when there is electricity to run the pumps.

“Because of the power outages, the hot water stops circulating in the pipes and we don’t have any heating,” she said. “Our children have gone down with colds and flu. My eldest son, who is just seven, caught a severe cold and was off school for a month.”

Sagymbaeva’s family does not have a burjuika but uses a range of heat sources, depending on which one is available at any given time. When the power is on, she cooks on an electric stove. She also has a gas stove but rarely uses it as gas canisters are expensive, at about 12 dollars a time. To get hot water for washing and doing the laundry, she siphons water out of the central heating system.

The family even tried using an oil-fueled generator, but stopped because it was filling the apartment with fumes and making the children drowsy.

When children go to school, temparatures are often no higher than at home, as public institutions are afflicted by the same problems with electricity, gas and central heating.

“Many schoolchildren at school have bad colds that they’ve caught as a result of the frequent power outages,” said Batken teacher Bunissa Imatova. “One day it was so cold in my classroom that a little boy wet himself. Adults can stand the cold, but it’s very difficult for little children when they have to sit still for 45 minutes.”

Janar Akayev, Jannat Toktosunova, Jenish Aidarov, and Kumondor Usupov are freelance reporters working for RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz service. Zumrad Narzullaeva and Sanjar Eraliyev are IWPR-trained journalists.

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