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Tajikistan: UN Urges Food Aid, As Anger Mounts Over Energy Crisis

  • Farangis Najibullah --> The winter has been the coldest in living memory in Tajikistan (RFE/RL) As the United Nations appeals for urgent food aid to stave off a humanitarian crisis in Tajikistan, critics say anger is mounting among Tajiks, who for the first time since their civil war in the 1990s may be ready to protest for major change.

It’s been the harshest winter in living memory for Tajikistan, leaving hundreds of thousands of people bitterly cold and hungry.

In some areas, temperatures have dropped below -20 and even -30 C. Rivers have frozen over, dealing a severe blow to the country’s decrepit and out-of-date hydroelectric power system, on which Tajiks are dependent.

Energy supplies have also been cut from neighboring Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. The result: severe shortages of gas and electricity, with a knock-on effect on food supplies.

"It’s very cold. Our walls, window, and cellar have frozen. There is no water here, because water pipelines burst from ice. Our cellar is covered with ice. We can’t use our bathroom and have to go to the street."

On February 13 and again today, the United Nations urged the international community to come up with $25 million to help feed 260,000 Tajiks. UN spokeswoman Michele Montas said that "More than half a million Tajiks are estimated to be food-insecure, while at least 260,000 need immediate food aid.

"The effects of the severe weather are compounded by an energy shortage, which has left schools with little or no power, according to UNICEF. The agency is sending emergency supplies to Tajikistan, including generators for hospitals and child care centers," Montas said.

Dushanbe, the capital, is one of the few places where residents can get 10 hours of electricity a day. In the rest of the county, people receive only four hours of electricity per day, with some districts left in total blackout.

Nargis, a resident in northern Panjakent city, said that even the walls in her apartment block are frozen.

"It’s very cold. Our walls, window, and cellar have frozen. There is no water here, because water pipelines burst from ice. Our cellar is covered with ice. We can’t use our bathroom and have to go to the street," Nargis said

While people in villages heat their homes with coal and wood, residents in urban apartment blocks don’t have that luxury. Some of them have installed woodstoves in their apartments in high-rising buildings. Others sleep wrapped in coats, caps, and blankets.

A man in his 50s, a migrant worker from southern Kulob region, recently tried to escape the cold by sleeping in a "tandur" -- a bakery stove in a market. However, he froze to death overnight.

Unheated Hospitals

Medical sources say the number of people suffering from cold-related illnesses has shot up since December. However, many patients prefer to stay at home because hospitals -- especially those in rural areas -- have limited hours of electricity and cannot afford to heat the building.

Newborn babies, infants, and the elderly are suffering most. Doctors and nurses in maternity wards deliver babies by candlelight in dark, freezing rooms. According to official figures, 232 newborn babies died in maternity wards last month, although officials insist that not every case has been related to the cold weather.

To make matters worse, food prices, as elsewhere, have been rising dramatically, forcing many Tajiks to cut down on essential foodstuffs. The authorities have also cut power to Dushanbe restaurants, cafes, and shops, ordering them to use candles instead.

Analysts say it’s all a very unsettling picture for Rahmon, who has recently sacked several high-ranking officials -- including some heads of districts -- for failing to deal with the ongoing crisis.

Shokirjon Hakimov, a politician and department head at the Tajik Institute of International Relationships in Dushanbe, told RFE/RL that many people think these measure are too little and too late. He says that although there have been no recent protests, people have finally started to express their anger and frustration.

"People are voicing their dissatisfaction in private gatherings and public places. Several children and elderly have died from cold. If things continue like this, the situation could go out of control. People would express their protest in different ways," Hakimov said.

Dodojon Atoulloev, an independent Tajik journalist and critic of the Tajik government, told RFE/RL that if the government does not take urgent steps to provide energy and food, Tajiks will rise up and try to bring the government down. He said that while Tajiks have become more patient since the end of the civil war in the 1990s, which killed at least 50,000 people, they now have "nothing left to lose."

"During this winter people realized that they long for warm and sunny days and at the same time people realized that they need bigger changes in their lives," Atoulloev said. "This year, there is a possibility of a color revolution in Tajikistan. In the worst-case scenario, some armed groups could try to overthrow the government."

Officially, the government has had no explanation for the electricity shortage.

Ironically, Tajikistan has the greatest hydroelectric capacity in Central Asia, with an estimated potential to produce over 300 billion kilowatt-hours annually. Several large- and medium-sized facilities, including the Sangtuda and Roghun hydropower plants, have been under construction for years, mostly with Russian and Iranian investment. But to date, none have been completed.

For now, Central Asia’s poorest country is relying on the kindness of strangers.

The United States has pledged $2.5 million in emergency aid. Saudi Arabia reportedly will provide a $10 million grant to Dushanbe. Japan says it will give $90,000, and neighboring Turkmenistan has agreed to increase its daily electricity export to Tajikistan from 3.5million kilowatt-hours to 6 million.

Still, the outlook is bleak. As Tajiks pray for spring to arrive, the snow and ice melt is expected to help restart the hydroelectric plants. Yet as the UN warned in a statement today, that melting snow and ice might just bring yet another natural catastrophe -- flooding.

(RFE/RL’s Tajik Service correspondent Mirzo Salimov contributed to this report.)

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