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Uzbekistan: Termite Plague Hits Karakalpakstan

An old enemy has returned to the north of the country, aided by severe drought and government inaction.
By Karina Insarova

When Ilyas Karakesekov and his family go to bed at night, they offer up an unusual prayer, "Please God, don't let the roof fall on us". For their timber-framed house is one of hundreds in the Karakalpakstan region infested by colonies of wood-munching termites.


"Termites have damaged 120 houses in my village of Tausha," Karakesekov told IWPR. "Many homes have been destroyed entirely and abandoned by their residents."


Only poor people and their wood and clay houses are affected by this plague, as wealthier Karakalpaks can afford to build their homes with concrete, steel and plastics. In a cruel twist, it is impossible to get insurance against termite damage - so those who have so very little to lose can suffer the most.


The pests are spreading like wildfire across the area, affecting half a million residents and causing damage estimated at 100 million sum - around 135,000 US dollars. Infestations are being recorded across 780,000 square km, including the regional capital of Nukus.


"In our village, all the houses - including my own - are built from wood," said Abdullah Sultanov, who lives in the Kus-Kul suburb of Nukus. "Termites are especially dangerous in these buildings because they get into the roof and turn the timber to dust. The roofs could collapse at any moment, burying the people inside."


Bek Tashmukhamedov, an academic from the Uzbekistan Academy of Sciences, explained that termites, which feed on dry timber, have become increasingly active in the region due to a dramatic fall in the level of the Aral Sea in recent decades and a severe drought, which has affected the area for nearly three years.


"What with the desertification of the South Aral region and the reduction of the area of bushes and desert forests, there is a growth in the population of three of the four species of termites prevalent in Central Asia - especially the Turkestan termite," said Tashmukhamedov.


"When there is a lot of water in the soil and plenty of greenery and forests, the termites die out. So the drought in the Aral region, which is now in its third year, has fuelled an unprecedented termite population."


The drought hit Karakalpakstan harder than other parts of Uzbekistan. Shortages of drinking water in the north of the region over the past two years have been so severe that the majority of the population has left the area for the south of the country, or even Kazakstan. The desiccation of the Aral Sea has also been linked to increased incidences of anaemia, cancer and tuberculosis among the local population.


While termites are an old and familiar enemy, they don't always inflict terrible damage. During Soviet times, a number of chemical treatment organisations formed to combat the problem proved very successful.


Marat Davemov, a reserve colonel and military chemist, told IWPR that Uzbek military specialists, alongside their Soviet counterparts, worked together to develop a chemical agent that would exterminate the pests without harming people.


"After Uzbekistan gained independence, the units were broken up and all the work on the project was stopped," he said.


Despite extensive debate on the termite problem, the Tashkent government has yet to take any practical steps to counter the infestations. No officials in the agriculture and water ministry are dealing with the issue and Kallibek Jiemuratov, head of Karakalpakstan's emergency situation service, says combating the pests is not part of his department's remit.


Orynbai Abatov, head of the Nukus plant protection laboratory, says that all the government can do is offer advice to people on building termite-proof homes and distribute relevant literature.


An official from the Karakalpakstan Council of Ministers told IWPR that a 900 million sum project to exterminate the insects is under consideration by the Uzbek government, but that no decision has been reached.


"Six hundred million sum of this money is earmarked as compensation for people who have suffered from the termite infestation, the rest of it will be directed towards the chemical treatment of wood," the representative said.


The residents of Karakalpakstan are meanwhile trying to fend off the pests with household remedies - treating building materials with oil and pouring water on colonies of the insects.


According to Abatov, however, such methods are ineffective. "In developed countries, an expensive and technically difficult method is employed to drive out termites, using poisonous gas. This method is rarely used here because it is hard for people to pay for these services," he explained.


Abatov points out that only specialised and properly equipped workers should carry out poisonous gas treatments. No such service exists in the region and there is no talk of setting one up.


Local people say it will take a tragedy for the authorities to act. Back in termite-stricken Tausha, Karakeskov is growing more concerned about the condition of his house and the future of his family every day.


"Today, termites enjoy permanent residency in our homes, until they become too unsafe for us to live in. Some people have no option but to use old wood to build new houses for their families - and when they move in, the termites move right in with them."


Karina Insarova is the pseudonym for a journalist in Karakalpakstan


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