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

Uzbekistan: Typhoid Outbreak Linked to Water Crisis

The latest epidemic is unlikely to be the last unless the country can upgrade its decaying network of water pipes.
By Mohammed Ashurali-ugli

More than 40 villagers in the Uzbek province of Jizak have been hospitalised after being diagnosed with typhoid fever. It is the third time that this illness has broken out in the region in only five years and each time poor quality drinking water has been held responsible.


The infected patients from the village of Pakhtakor range in age from seven to 35. But 80 per cent of those who have been hospitalised are children. A woman named Mubarek recounted how the life-threatening disease claimed two of her sons, Mukhtar, 17, and Rakhim, 19.


"The local doctor said Mukhtar had flu," she said. "After two weeks his temperature went up to 40 degrees. A rash appeared on his chest and stomach and another analysis confirmed he had typhoid."


Ludmila Kudasheva, a government specialist in epidemics, said old water pipes in Pakhtakor were to blame for the outbreak. "The pipe burst and unclean water started to get in from the canals," she said. "People drank the water and that was the cause of the infection."


The local authorities at first concealed news of the epidemic, claiming preventative measures taken to stop the spread of the illness - including the closure of all establishments selling carbonated water, dining halls and the local market - were merely precautions.


Mukhtor Radjabov, head of the regional sanitation board, dismissed talk of typhoid as "just a rumour". But reports of an outbreak spread quickly, only to be confirmed when the deputy health minister, Bakhtier Niazmatov, paid an emergency visit to Pakhtakor on April 30.


Bad drinking water has been a problem in Jizak province for years. According to the watchdog group Vodocanal (Water Channel), the network of pipes laid down in the province in the 1970s is now unfit for use. Only one artesian well in seven is working. While some people can buy bottled water, those that can't afford such a luxury have to make do with the tap. "The drinking water problem in the Pakhtakor area is a real headache," said Vodocanal's head, Zakir Mamarasulov. "The lack of good water is making people furious."


To make things worse, many people in Pakhtakor use canal water for their cooking, without realising the serious danger this poses to their health. "We've always used water from the canal," said one villager, Nabi Rasulov. "I did not know it could be infected."


Three people from the village are thought to have died from typhoid in an earlier epidemic in 1985. There were reports of a second epidemic in 2000. Then, as now, the local leadership tried to stop the news from reaching the public.


The worsening problem and the periodic outbreaks of typhoid have now forced the authorities to take action. A recent government paper on the water supply in the Jizak, Syrdarya and Kashkadarya provinces earmarked almost 12 million US dollars, donated by the Asian bank for Development, for improvements in the Jizak province alone. The money is to go on 12 new purification systems, six new pumping stations, 91 km of new water piping and repairs to another 37 km.


But these improvements are all to go on the provincial capital. It is still not clear what money, if any, will go on upgrading the water supply to country villages, where many of the province's 1.5 million population live.


There is a widespread suspicion that the government only takes action to help rural areas when a real emergency arises. Some villagers joke that in order to receive clean drinking water, the inhabitants of all the province's other towns and villages would have to go down with typhoid, or some other equally dangerous illness.


Mohammed Ashurali ugli is the pseudonym for journalist in Uzbekistan