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Central Asia: Analysis From Washington -- The Politics Of Drought

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 22 September 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The countries of Central Asia and the southern Caucasus are suffering through the worst drought in nearly a century, a natural disaster that is already growing into a humanitarian one and may become a political disaster as well.

Uzbekistan Deputy Foreign Minister Isan Mustafayev said on Wednesday that his country was appealing for international assistance because Tashkent lacks the resources to cope with "the severe shortage of water" caused by the drought.

His colleague, Deputy Agriculture Minister Abdurakhim Dhzalalov added that "never in memory" have Uzbeks faced such difficult drought conditions as now. Rains earlier this year, he said, "were less than 15 percent of the usual amount" and crops are now at risk.

Relief officials said that at least $30 million was needed to help some 200,000 Uzbek families who have already lost their annual crops. They pointed out that the percentage of the population with access to potable water has fallen to under half, a situation that has already led to a 50 percent increase in the number of intestinal diseases.

Both the Uzbek appeal and the problems people there confront parallel those of all the countries of the southern Caucasus and Central Asia as well as portions of Iran and Afghanistan. Of the 60 million people affected by the drought, at least three million are now at risk of starvation.

The United Nations, the Red Cross and Red Crescent societies, and a variety of international relief organizations have also issued appeals for help. But the scope of the problem, the financial costs of addressing it, and the political difficulties of sending aid to these countries so far have kept contributions from abroad small.

As a result, this disaster appears likely to spark a series of political crises in the region. First, the inability of regimes in these regions to cope inevitably will further reduce their authority among their citizenries, a development that may help to power the insurgencies some of them now face.

In Uzbekistan, for example, the severe shortage of water could help the Islamist insurgents to gain new adherents. After all, the leaders of the fundamentalist challenge to the Tashkent regime has already blamed it for all the ills of Uzbek society, and these leaders seem certain to blame the Uzbek government for past policies that have contributed to water shortages and for its current inability to attract aid.

Second, internal efforts to address the water shortage will inevitably divert resources from other projects, including improving education and health care for the burgeoning populations of this region. Such a shift in spending is likely to anger groups which up to now had cast their lot with the existing regimes, viewing them as the best means of making progress in their region.

Such people may not join the opposition forces, but they are likely to become increasingly suspicious and sullen about the prospects for development there, a set of attitudes at least some authoritarian leaders may seek to use to justify the kinds of oppressive government that will keep them in power for the short term but only by postponing a social explosion until sometime in the future.

And third, the leaders of the governments of this region are likely to draw some politically powerful conclusions about the real attitudes of outside countries. Even as the Uzbek authorities were making their appeal to the United Nations, the UN's special envoy to the Horn of Africa, Catherine Bertini, was telling the press that international assistance to that drought-stricken region had averted a humanitarian disaster there.

Bertini, who also heads the UN World food Program, said on 21 September that "the generosity of the people around the world" had been responsible for the dramatic turnaround in Ethiopia and its neighbors over the last six months.

Unless assistance is forthcoming soon, officials in the countries of the southern Caucasus and Central Asia are likely to draw some invidious comparisons between the international response to the drought crisis in the Horn of Africa and to their own current difficult situation.

Some of them might be expected to lash out at regional governments who have made it difficult for international agencies to dispatch aid, and others may place the blame on those wealthier countries further afield that have not been willing to try to help them.

Such attitudes are likely to cast a shadow on their relations with these states long after the drought which gave them birth ends, creating yet another group of disaffected states that view the international community with ever increasing suspicion.

None of these things will make recovery easier, and all of them presage more instability in regions that are already considered to be among the most unstable in the world.