Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Uzbek Water Purity Fears

Fergana residents concerned untreated drinking water could spread infectious diseases.
By Nigora Sadykova

Regular chlorination of drinking water has been halted in the Fergana region of Uzbekistan, prompting locals to fear that their health may be endangered.


The Vodokanal company, responsible for water purification in the parts of the region where such treatment is available, had previously chlorinated all drinking water daily. But the Russian-produced liquid chlorine required by its Soviet-era equipment is expensive and stocks left over from previous years are depleting. The chemical was last imported from Russia in 1998.


In an attempt to limit its use, Vodokanal has switched to a regime whereby water is tested daily and only treated if it is found to be unsafe, according to stringent controls established in Soviet times.


Company employees and members of the local administration defend the new scheme. But city dwellers have expressed concerns about potential consequences for their health, in a region where rural residents are already forced to drink untreated water from open wells.


"Over 100 samples of water are analysed in our laboratory every day," Vodokanal chief Shukhrat Yulchiev told IWPR. "If a water source gives a negative result, we immediately stop it and decontaminate it with chlorine."


A representative of the provincial government said, "There is no reason to be alarmed about the water quality. Everything is under control."


But many residents of the Fergana region - which has a population of around two and a half million - say there has been an increase recently in the rate of infectious diseases, with tap water often the root cause.


"My son was diagnosed with dysentery and spent a week in hospital. According to the doctors' diagnosis, he caught dysentery by drinking unboiled water," said one local Tulkin Mirzaev.


Another Kamalitdin Turdaliev said the halt in regular chloriination has led to an increase in intestinal disease amongst children and kidney problems in adults.


"Pour tap water into a glass, leave it for a while, and you will see rust, mud, dirt and debris at the bottom," he said. "Regular consumption of this water is harmful to the human body. It's no wonder that so many people here suffer from kidney and gall bladder stones."


The water treatment system in rural parts of the region has long since broken down completely and residents there are forced to use open wells, exposing them to cholera, malaria and even bubonic plague.


Research workers at the Fergana regional museum say thousands of people died in a local outbreak of bubonic plague in 1911. The Tsarist regime in Russia tried to force the local population to burn the corpses of victims in an attempt to stop the spread of the disease. But some local residents, keen to observe religious tradition and pray over their relatives' bodies before internment, hid corpses and later buried them in secret.


Vodokanal employee Rasul Nasyrov told IWPR that such burial grounds, especially those left over from a particularly severe epidemic in the village of Sadkak, pose a real danger. As a result of erosion by rain and floods, there may now be plague bacteria in underground water channels used for drinking in these rural areas.


Nigora Sadykova is a pseudonym for an Uzbek journalist.