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Uzbeks Keenly Aware Of Quake Danger


Dozens of Uzbeks reported minor injuries in the July 20 earthquake. (Photo provided by UGNPU HR Group)

Dozens of Uzbeks reported minor injuries in the July 20 earthquake. (Photo provided by UGNPU HR Group)

The 6.2-magnitude earthquake that struck the heart of Central Asia overnight on July 19-20 claimed and shattered lives in the Ferghana Valley, a kaleidoscopically diverse and notoriously restive region that includes swaths of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan.

Thankfully, the death toll for such a sizable quake could have been much higher. Structural damage was widespread, but not necessarily catastrophic, with most of it in Uzbekistan.

Near the epicenter, Kyrgyz officials briskly toured their most affected region, Batken, and announced that there were "no victims or destruction" and "only cracks in household structures," according to Interfax. Electricity had been restored to cut-off areas by the next morning.

Tajik officials seemed less concerned, despite one fatality. They blamed that death on a man's panicked leap from a second-floor window to escape his apartment amid the rumbling. There was no national message from the head of state, President Emomali Rahmon.

Listening to officials in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, then, there has been minimal disruption.

Less so in Uzbekistan, where 13 of the 14 reported deaths occurred and authorities were quick to provide seemingly accurate casualty and destruction figures. (Even if they were more characteristically terse in assuring the public that the government was "taking measures" to respond to the quake, according to Interfax-Kazakhstan.)

Our Uzbek Service says the quake has encouraged considerable public debate on disaster-preparedness. Local bloggers and other online commentators are asking whether building standards and practices are adequate for such a seismically vulnerable area. Other Uzbeks are contributing online accounts of the panic that ensued when, shortly after midnight, the sustained convulsions sent residents scrambling into the streets. Still others are exhorting their countrymen to make sure they have emergency supply kits packed and ready.

Uzbek emergency services' candor and the ensuing public discussion are welcome, and they contrast starkly with the cover-up a week earlier in neighboring Turkmenistan, when citizen journalists spread word and images of the explosions at a weapons depot that cost many lives and sprayed molten destruction from the skies for kilometers.

And earthquake jitters are understandable, since so many Uzbeks recall the devastation of a 1966 quake that flattened buildings in the capital, Tashkent.

Cleanup after Uzbekistan's devastating earthquake in 1966

But Uzbek officials have played up the seismic dangers in the region in their strident and ongoing opposition to Tajikistan's planned Rogun dam project on the Vakhsh River, a tributary of the Amu Darya that divided Central Asia from Persia in ancient times. Tajikistan, which currently depends on Uzbekistan for much of its electricity, has dismissed such fears as ungrounded. The United Nations has been dragged into this neighborly dispute for "preventive diplomacy" and to help jump-start a World Bank environmental-feasibility study.

Observers might welcome Tashkent's uncharacteristically forthcoming response to this week's tragedy and the currently robust public discussion among Uzbeks of disaster preparedness. They might ultimately save lives.

But they should also note that there might be more to some of the lingering Uzbek reverberations than meets the eye.

-- Andy Heil

About This Blog

Written by RFE/RL editors and correspondents, Transmission serves up news, comment, and the odd silly dictator story. While our primary concern is with foreign policy, Transmission is also a place for the ideas -- some serious, some irreverent -- that bubble up from our bureaus. The name recognizes RFE/RL's role as a surrogate broadcaster to places without free media. You can write us at transmission+rferl.org

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