KHATLON PROVINCE, Tajikistan -- With more than 1,300 natural lakes and an abundance of glacier-fed streams and rivers, Tajikistan would not appear to have a water shortage.
Yet millions of Tajiks struggle every day to get safe drinking water, with the country's largest province experiencing the greatest shortfalls.
The southern Khatlon Province is home to two major rivers, the Panj and Vakhsh, but just 20 percent of its 4 million inhabitants have access to clean water. Those left without are forced to quench their thirst with water taken from brooks polluted with garbage or from irrigation canals tainted by pesticides and fertilizers.
"A lack of clean water is problem No. 1 in my neighborhood," says Safarmo Karimova, a housewife in the province's Vakhsh district.
Karimova's husband and their two children are recovering from typhoid; she says many others from her village suffer from the water-borne infectious disease. Doctors believe they were infected from contaminated water.
Left with no other option, Karimova carries potable water in buckets from a neighboring village.
"Because of the lack of clean water, three family members are ill," she says. "Water is in such short supply that I cannot even allow my children to wash their hands properly, in order to save water. I even have to warn my children not to drink too much water. The government has to do something about this. It has to help us."
Karimova recalls that it wasn't always this way. "I remember that, during the Soviet era, trucks used to deliver clean water to our villages for free, every day," she says.
In the 1970s, Khatlon Province embarked on a water-mains project intended to provide water to every household from a centralized source.
Whatever infrastructure was built has long since fallen into disrepair, however, prompting calls for a new water-supply system.
"We need to build a new infrastructure to pump water from rivers or to extract water from underground resources wherever available to supply people with clean water," says Kholnazar Muhabbatov of Tajikistan's Academy of Sciences. "We also need to build reservoirs to collect water, especially during spring and summer when the volume of water is high in rivers."
Such a project would be costly -- at least $100 million, according to experts -- making its realization a dim prospect. A Khatlon provincial official, speaking on condition of anonymity, says authorities don't expect the water-shortage issue to be resolved in the near future.
Hope Springs Eternal
Mirzo Ashurov, who heads the regional water-supply authority, says the government has taken "major steps" to address the crisis, however.
"The situation has improved dramatically in the past three to five years," Ashurov says, noting that the centralized water system has been completely renovated in the provincial capital, Qurghonteppa.
In addition, a water reservoir with a chlorination room for disinfecting water has recently been refurbished in the town of Sarband, which supplies potable water to surrounding districts.
Officials say that in several districts, including Muminobod and Vose, pipes have been installed to deliver fresh spring water directly to nearby villages.
At the state-run regional hospital in Qurghonteppa, head doctor Nurullo Boyakov declares that "the days when waterborne diseases like typhoid were virtually endemic are over for good."
Boyakov says cases of waterborne diseases have fallen significantly, although he stops short of providing official statistics.
"Last year we registered a very small number of cases of typhoid, hepatitis A, diarrhea -- illnesses directly linked to contaminated water," Boyakov says. "But we are not stopping there. We will continue our campaign to explain to people how to prevent waterborne diseases."
The campaign entails doctors raising public awareness through television and radio appearances, during which they give basic advice such as boiling water before drinking.
'Up To Those In Charge'
Boyakov says doctors are doing "everything they can" to help eradicate waterborne diseases in the region by 2015. "But at the end of day it's up to those in charge of the water-supply system to provide people with clean water," he notes.
Despite the steps taken by authorities, many say not enough is being done.
Sangali Rahimov, an economics professor at Qurghonteppa University, echoes the thinking shared by many locals.
"Nobody pays attention to this problem -- no one from local government or lawmakers representing this region ever emphasize the importance of this issue," Rahimov says. "If authorities had made it their priority they would have found some way, some investment, over the past two decades to solve the problem."
Written and reported by Farangis Najibullah in Prague, with additional reporting by RFE/RL Tajik Service correspondent Nosirjon Mamurzoda