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Tajikistan: Population Facing Serious Food Shortages, Malnutrition

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

The United Nations says the Central Asian state of Tajikistan is facing serious food shortages for the second straight year, leaving 1 million people -- almost one-sixth of the population -- in need of food assistance. This deficit is the combined result of poor climatic conditions and structural problems in a country that is still recovering from the five-year civil war that followed the breakup of the Soviet Union. RFE/RL correspondent Jean-Christophe Peuch looks further into the issue with two Dushanbe-based agriculture and nutrition specialists.

Dushanbe, 24 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- On World Food Day last week (16 October), the United Nations World Food Program (WFP) called upon donor countries to provide urgent aid to the impoverished Central Asian state of Tajikistan, where the organization says nearly one-sixth of the population is facing the consequences of a two-year drought that is also affecting neighboring Afghanistan.

A WFP press release says that with this year's cereal output down 36 percent from the average of the last five years, Tajikistan needs some 67,000 tons of food to cope with the situation in areas most affected by the drought. This assistance, worth more than $35 million, would help meet an expected gap in cereal stocks between January and June of next year.

In comments reported in the press release, the WFP's Tajikistan country director, Ardag Meghdessian, says that without such assistance up to 1 million Tajiks living in remote and mountainous areas could face starvation.

The country is still struggling with the aftermath of the 1992-1997 civil war that brought Russia-backed President Imomali Rakhmonov to power. The country, now at peace, is still overwhelmed by economic hardships.

Tajikistan, with its population of 6.2 million, is one of the poorest former Soviet republics. World Bank data shows that an estimated 80 percent of the country's population lives below the poverty line, with an average monthly income of less than $10.

The unemployment rate is believed to be close to 50 percent in the country's major cities, although no serious employment survey has been conducted since Tajikistan gained independence 10 years ago. The situation is believed to be no better in rural areas, where many people are still officially employed in state-owned "kolkhozes" and "sovkhozes" -- Soviet-era collective farms -- but have not been paid for months.

Philippe Mougin heads the Tajikistan mission of the London-based non-governmental organization Action Against Hunger-UK. Mougin told our correspondent that Tajikistan has just enough supplies to feed its population until January 2002. He said the drought is only one of the reasons behind Tajikistan's current food situation.

"One has to be very careful to make a distinction between drought-related causes and structural causes. Among the latter is a rather restricted access to land. It is estimated that there are some 7 million hectares of arable land in the country. In terms of privately owned land -- household plots or private land allotted by presidential decree, which is known here as 'presidential land' -- that makes an average of 0.16 hectare per [capita]."

The figures drop even lower in Tajikistan's poorest areas. Halka Otto is a food program manager for the German-based Deutsche Welthungerhilfe non-governmental organization, also known by its English name, German Agro Action.

In an interview with RFE/RL, Otto said access to arable land for private farmers is particularly restricted in areas where her organization operates, notably in the northeastern Karategin Valley and in the northern Zarafshan Valley.

"What we found is that access to arable land is very limited in those regions where we are working. The average arable land available per capita is something like 0.06 or 0.07 [hectares]. The average is something like 0.14 [hectares] for the country. So, in regions where we are working, it is half of that."

Another structural problem inherent to Tajikistan's agriculture sector is a decayed irrigation system that leaves some of the country's arable lands with virtually no water. Aqueducts and irrigation canals that once brought water from the country's main waterways have long since collapsed, and there is officially no money to repair them. Among the priorities set up by the WFP is reforming the entire irrigation system.

In a joint report published earlier this year in cooperation with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the WFP says dilapidated irrigation structures is one of the factors that has most contributed to the recent decrease in agriculture output. The WFP/FAO report estimates that between 40 and 50 percent of water-pumping equipment is not functional and that those pumps remaining are breaking down "at an alarming rate" due to overuse.

Mougin of Action Against Hunger says his organization is working on a European Union-funded project to dig, clean, or restore irrigation canals in the southern Khatlon region. This and other emergency measures -- such as shipping seeds and fertilizers to the area -- should help local farmers cope with the recent crop failure by preparing for next year's harvest.

However, experts stress that a complete restoration of Tajikistan's irrigation system will take at least a decade.

Tajikistan and neighboring Uzbekistan were intended to become the Soviet Union's main cotton-producing republics in the 1970s. Although cotton crops consume large amounts of water and yields have suffered from a lack of fertilizers and pesticides, the Tajik government has not yet relinquished what remains -- along with aluminum, its main source of export revenue. U.N. data show that cotton exports brought the Tajik government almost $92 million in revenue last year, down from more than $112 million in 1998.

Cotton and aluminum account for two-thirds of Tajikistan's foreign exchange earnings. In a number of cases, private farmers have been pressured by central authorities to grow cotton rather than other crops, notably on so-called "presidential land." Mougin says: "It is somehow unfortunate that, in a country which is being watered by very large rivers, the small amount of arable land that exists here gets so little water. Therefore, [what we are facing] is a water-management, rather than a water-availability issue. If the government wants to assign some of the land to the culture of cotton in order to get hard-currency revenues, that's fine. But I believe that they should proceed the other way around -- that is, first to evaluate how much arable land is needed to feed the population, and only then to assign the remainder to cotton crops."

People already suffering from malnutrition are the most vulnerable to Tajikistan's pending food deficit. A survey conducted last year by Action Against Hunger, German Agro Action, WFP, and other international relief organizations found that almost 40 percent of the country's children were chronically malnourished, with the rates growing even higher in mountainous central areas and in the eastern Gorno-Badakhshan autonomous district. In cities, the malnutrition level of children is estimated at 24 percent.

Otto of German Agro Action says drought alone cannot justify this high malnutrition rate. She says it is important to distinguish between the ailment's chronic and acute forms: "I would say that you will find a rather high amount of chronically malnourished people [in Tajikistan,] which is certainly due to the lack of food but [also] to the wrong utilization of food and, maybe, to wrong feeding practices. Chronic malnutrition is not something that develops [overnight]. If you starve for just one week, you would not be chronically malnourished. [Chronic malnutrition] is a long-term phenomenon, while acute malnutrition is certainly developing when you have nothing to eat for three or four weeks."

Otto says areas where farmers are allowed to grow fruits and vegetables -- like the Karategin Valley -- show a much lower rate of malnutrition. By contrast, areas where cotton remains the predominant culture -- like the Khatlon region -- are affected by severe food shortages, with people there living mainly on bread and tea.

International organizations have warned that malnourished Tajiks are particularly prone to contracting infectious diseases, especially water-borne ailments. Action Against Hunger's Mougin says malnutrition-related illnesses in Tajikistan usually reach their peak during summer.

A recent survey conducted by the organization in areas close to the southern city of Kourgan-Tyube shows that one out of 10 children under the age of five needs emergency therapy due to malnutrition or related illnesses.

International organizations fear their calls for emergency food supplies for Tajikistan may remain unheard amid the clamor generated by the U.S.-led military strikes against Taliban targets in Afghanistan.

Donor countries are being pressed by the United Nations to provide food to the hundreds of thousands of Afghan civilians that have been driven from their homes by drought, civil war, and now by the bombing campaign.

Last week's WFP statement quoted Tajikistan country director Meghdessian as saying, "We are hoping that the generosity of the donor community towards the drought victims in Afghanistan will extend further north and help the hungry poor in Tajikistan, who are suffering from the same drought."

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