Tajikistan: Downpours Bring More Misery

After three years of drought, torrential rain and locusts have destroyed thousands of acres of crops, heaping more problems on the country's desperate citizens.

Tajikistan: Downpours Bring More Misery

After three years of drought, torrential rain and locusts have destroyed thousands of acres of crops, heaping more problems on the country's desperate citizens.

People in the Dangarinsky region were last year reduced to opening marmot holes to get at grain stores gathered by the creatures, such was their desperation after three years of drought had devastated Tajikistan and brought a million people to the brink of starvation.

The situation was exacerbated this year when violent rainfall washed the crops off tens of thousands of hectares of arable land. Thousands more acres of carefully nurtured crops were destroyed by the locust swarms that followed the downpour.

The Tajik agriculture ministry estimates that 38,000 thousand hectares of planted cotton and almost 8,000 hectares of grain have been lost - that's 14 per cent and four per cent respectively of the total sown area for each crop. Such a harvest would have been worth half a million US dollars, which is a colossal sum for a country only recently emerging from years of civil war.

The UN's World Food Program, WFP, estimates that Moroccan locusts have destroyed the crops on some 40 to 60 thousand acres. Traditional pesticides cannot destroy this type of locust but Tajikistan does not have the resources to buy more effective - and more expensive - chemicals.

The impact on the country's farmers is immeasurable. Ismail, a 46-year-old father of seven, is just one of many in the Dangarinksy region now unable to support their families. He did not choose to be an agricultural worker and would certainly not remain one if he had any other option.

A Russian-language and literature teacher, he accepted four years ago that he could not feed his large family on his meagre salary and became a farmer.

A presidential decree was issued which gave away 50,000 hectares of land to those who would use it for farming and many took advantage of the offer. In the first year, Ismail and his partners saw a rich harvest of cereals on the land, despite it not being irrigated.

But the drought has changed everything. Today there are almost no young people left in Ismail's village. Most, including his eldest sons, have gone to work in Russia. There, many Tajik youths are subject to prejudice from the Russian population and end up in menial jobs to earn a little cash for their families.

Those that remain in the region only survive thanks to help from international humanitarian organisations.

Even in a good year, Tajikistan cannot grow enough food for its people. Most of the country is mountainous which leaves a relatively tiny area suitable for cultivation. It is therefore forced to import between 300,000 and 400,000 tons of foodstuffs every year and to rely on humanitarian aid.

Ardag Megessian, WFP's Tajikistan director, told IWPR that his organisation had supplied the republic with 66,000 tons of foodstuffs in 2001 and that deliveries could rise to around 90,000 tons this year. Most of the aid was distributed in rural areas where 70 per cent of the poorest Tajiks live.

With an estimated per capita GDP of only of 1,140 US dollars in 2000, Tajikistan is the poorest of the former Soviet republics and it is estimated that over two-thirds of its 6.5 million people live below the poverty line.

The WFP and the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, FAO, are set to meet with experts from the agricultural ministry this month to assess the volumes of aid now needed. However, with world attention currently focused on neighbouring Afghanistan, there are fears that not enough aid will be secured to meet demand.

Ilkhom Narziev is an independent journalist in Dushanbe.

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