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Central Asia: Drought Decimating Crops

Central Asia is experiencing the worst drought in decades. Crops are failing all over the region, and grain and other food aid are desperately needed. RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier reports.

Prague, 3 August 2000 (RFE/RL) -- In May, Turkmenistan's eccentric President Saparmurat Niyazov told farmers he was using his powers to hold back the rain so they could plant their crops. Someone may want to ask Niyazov to stop now. Drought has come to the region.

All of Central Asia and much of the Middle East is suffering from drought this summer. In Afghanistan, international aid organizations and some media are trying to draw world attention to the dire situation. North of Afghanistan, in the five CIS Central Asian states -- Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan -- the situation is little better.

The same month the Turkmen president said he was holding back the rain, Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov was giving a grim forecast for his country.

"This year, due to the continuing drought, a significant portion of the grain harvest, especially wheat, has perished. We hope our appeal about the drought to the leading countries, rain producers and health organizations will not go unnoticed."

And it has not gone unnoticed, but the response was slow. It was nearly three months before a joint mission from the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Food Program, or WPF, formally assessed the situation. Heather Hill of the WPF spoke to RFE/RL from the organization's headquarters in Rome about the mission's findings.

"The joint mission by the World Food Program and the Food and Agriculture Organization confirmed the suspicions that the drought is having a severe effect on Tajikistan. The report says an estimated 3 million people are facing severe food access problems and are at risk of hunger and undernourishment. This is the worst drought in Tajikistan in about 70 years. And the country desperately needs help to prevent possible famine."

Three million people represent half of Tajikistan's population. And this drought only adds to Tajikistan's misery, as the country is still recovering from a civil war which ended three years ago.

To the north, Kyrgyzstan is faring somewhat better. The agriculture minister (Aleksandr Kostyuk) announced last month that this year's harvest will be about 8 percent less than last year's.

A particularly disturbing aspect of the drought in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan is that its effects reach beyond those two countries. Most of the water for farmland in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan comes from rivers whose sources are in the Tajik and Kyrgyz mountains.

The WFP's Hill said international aid organizations are already preparing for another country in the region to request help.

"Certainly this is a regional drought, and all the countries in the region have been affected in one way or another. Uzbekistan, in fact, has problems there, and a UN mission has recently found there are needs in Uzbekistan. As a result of that there is going to be, apparently, an appeal made by them as well for help from the international community."

Officials in western Uzbekistan's Kara-Kalpak region predict heavy crop failure this year. This year's grain harvest is down 25 percent -- a million tons of grain short of the target.

Kazakhstan, too, appears to be hard hit by the drought. Officials in Kazakhstan's southern Maqta Aral district, one of the country's richest agricultural regions, are predicting a massive crop failure due to the drought. East of Maqta Aral, drought and heat touched off fires which have burned 50,000 hectares of forest land and crossed into northern Uzbekistan.

Information on authoritarian Turkmenistan is harder to come by. What is certain is that the country lies almost at the end of the region's major river, the Amu-Darya, which originates in Tajikistan. By the time it reaches Turkmenistan, the once-mighty river is just a trickle of water.

Strangely, the Turkmen president who claimed to be holding back the rain in May recently said his country gathered a record harvest. This year's record harvest beat last year's record harvest. It has never been possible to independently verify such claims from Turkmenistan, but this one seems particularly suspicious.

The problem is extremely serious but the reaction of the region's governments, or rather their use of water as a weapon may make the situation much worse. We'll look at how in our next part.