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Caucasus: The Great Drought Spreads To Tajikistan, Armenia, Georgia -- Part 1

The Middle East and south Asia have been hard hit by a drought this year, which now also has spread to include parts of Central Asia and the Caucasus. As RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel reports in a two-part series, the drought in some countries is severely taxing their ability to feed their populations. Part one looks at the situation in Tajikistan, Armenia, and Georgia.

Prague, 4 October 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Throughout this summer, media attention has focused on the drought in the Middle East and south Asia, where many countries are suffering a second year of water shortages and bad harvests.

But now drought conditions also have appeared in Central Asia and the Caucasus. In recent months, water and food shortages have become critical in Tajikistan and worrisome in northern Uzbekistan. Armenia and Georgia have been hard hit as well.

RFE/RL spoke with Shukri Ahmed from the UN's Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) to learn more about the extent of the drought in the former Soviet republics. Speaking by phone from Rome, Ahmed said that throughout the region low rainfall levels have exacerbated water shortages caused by below average precipitation last winter.

"Across the CIS countries in the Asian region, the overall food supply situation is extremely tight, and cereal import and food aid needs have increased sharply over last year. And particularly after May, Armenia, Georgia, and Tajikistan have all been affected by severe drought and this has exacerbated the problem of the below-normal winter precipitation that they had earlier in the year and also late last year."

Ahmed continued:

"In the worse-affected areas, what we are finding now is that the rain-fed crops have more or less failed, specifically in Armenia, Georgia, Tajikistan, and now we also are facing similar problems in Uzbekistan."

The worst hit of these countries is Tajikistan, which the FAO says is suffering its worst drought in 70 years. Ahmed says that this year's cereal harvest is down 47 percent compared to last year and that output of all other crops has also been dramatically reduced.

The result is a looming food emergency for the country, which lacks the financial resources to compensate adequately for the harvest shortfall by purchasing food from the outside.

The FAO says that Tajikistan will have to import some 800,000 tons of cereals to meet its requirements until next year's summer harvest. But the agency estimates the country's ability to import food commercially at only about half that amount.

To make up the shortfall, the UN has appealed to the international community to contribute food aid. As donors have begun to make pledges, Ahmed puts the amount still needed at 315,000 tons.

UN officials say that getting the food aid to Tajikistan will be challenging because of the great distance it must travel to reach the country. Khaled Mansoor of the UN's World Food Program's office in Islamabad told RFE/RL's Tajik Service the food will be delivered to a Baltic port, then transported by rail:

"Because it is a landlocked country, basically the way to get the food there is to bring it into the Baltic Sea, into one of the Baltic ports, and then use the railway through the region to Uzbekistan -- and from there it can through to Khatlon, which is in the southern province of Tajikistan. It's a huge distance. We're talking about 4,500 kilometers of railway transport."

Elsewhere in Central Asia, UN food experts are closely watching drought conditions in parts of Uzbekistan. The FAO's Ahmed says that there are signs the harvest there has fallen short of targets and that this could create food shortages in the months ahead. Ahmed says:

"The overall indications that we are finding for the 2000 cereal harvest is that it is below last year's. There are some official reports now that on the large farms some 3.1 million tons of wheat and barley have been harvested, which is less than the target of 4.3 million tons."

Ahmed says an FAO mission to Uzbekistan will complete a full report by next month on water and food shortages in the country. The agency says the situation in neighboring Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan is generally good and has not warranted similar missions there.

In the Caucasus, crops in Armenia and Georgia have been severely damaged as the months of May through August have seen unusually hot weather and little rain. Armenia estimates damages to its agricultural sector at over $100 million while Georgia says the drought has ruined the entire harvest in the eastern part of the country.

Ahmed says the drought in the Caucasus poses a particular threat to subsistence farmers, who mostly live on the produce of their fields. The group is vulnerable because it has little money to purchase food in markets, where it is still available.

"We are seeing a very looming problem for the winter, particularly for the subsistence farmers who do not have the capacity to buy from the markets and have very little contact with the market, [to which they usually take] some of their produce and [sell it] on barter terms. The markets, particularly in the cities and towns, [have] food more or less available there but [these farmers] cannot afford those."

Ahmed says about a third of Armenia's population lives in rural areas and about 70 percent of these people are subsistence farmers to varying degrees. In Georgia, agriculture is the main source of income and employment for more than 50 percent of the population.

With this year's harvest collected, food experts say the problem now is to assure there is enough food in drought-hit areas to last until next year's crop.

How much relief will be needed beyond that will depend entirely on this winter's rain and snowfall. In many areas of the region, it will have to be particularly heavy if reservoirs are to be replenished to their normal levels. Whether that will happen will not be known until December at the earliest -- when the pattern of this winter's precipitation begins to become clear.

(Part 2 of the two-part series looks at conditions in Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq, and explores the prospects of the regional drought ending next year. RFE/RL's Bruce Pannier contributed to this report.)