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Tajikistan: Red Cross Says Systemic Change Needed To Rebuild Regions, Distribute Food

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies has released a report finding fault with the way relief agencies assist countries recovering from disasters. The Red Cross singled out the case of Tajikistan, which has received food aid for eight years but has been ill-equipped to deal with the current drought. UN correspondent Robert McMahon assesses the Red Cross report.

United Nations, 2 July 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The ongoing drought in Central Asia has hit particularly hard in Tajikistan, a country still struggling to emerge from years of civil war and considered one of the poorest in the region.

But a new report from the Red Cross says the drought only amplified the existing problem of food insecurity. The relief agency says eight straight years of international food aid to Tajikistan have not been adequate because of deep-rooted structural problems in the country's post-Soviet transition.

For example, during last year's drought -- the worst in 74 years -- the government pumped water into cotton fields rather than increasing irrigation to food-growing sectors. The Red Cross report, released late last week, says cereal production in Tajikistan fell 47 percent from 1999 to 2000, but the production of cotton -- a key cash crop -- rose six percent during that same time period.

Peter Walker is founding editor of the annual report on world disasters issued by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. He told a news conference last week (28 June) that Tajikistan's problem is one of the most complex facing aid agencies, due in part to the difficulties related to changing the role it played in the former Soviet Union.

"The economy of Tajikistan in the old centrist-economy era was one of acquiring grain from other Soviet states and exporting cotton. You no longer have that system going on. The cotton is still there, and the money is going into that to drive export, but it isn't buying food and you've got an economy which is just spiraling down and down and down."

The Red Cross says more than 1.2 million people are now facing hunger and malnutrition in Tajikistan because of the drought and chronic food shortages. Walker says Tajikistan's problems are further complicated by its proximity to Afghanistan, the world's leading source of heroin.

"You have a real problem because so much needs to be changed -- the whole system of land tenure, the relationship between the cotton trade and food production, [and] the insidious effect of the drug trade out of Afghanistan through Tajikistan up into Europe [have all] harmed the economy."

A study by the UN's Integrated Regional Information Network estimates that 30 to 50 percent of Tajikistan's economic activity is linked to drugs coming from Afghanistan.

The Red Cross says neither the Tajik government nor the international community has mapped out a long-term strategy to develop the country's food sector or break out of the dependence on drug trafficking. But its annual report notes a number of reform programs have been initiated by agencies such as the United Nations, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, and the Red Cross.

The government must take responsibility for ensuring that the programs do address the country's food crisis, the report says, but relief agencies should coordinate their aid into a broader recovery process rather than focusing solely on emergency assistance.

For its part, the Red Cross has designed a plan with locally targeted goals to help Tajikistan on the community level. They include providing target groups with seeds to plant next year's harvest, improving the quality of drinking water through the chlorination of wells, and expanding the water system in certain areas through repairs to the Soviet-era water distribution system.

The theme of reducing vulnerability in disaster zones was stressed throughout the latest annual report from the Red Cross. In addition to the complex case of Tajikistan, the report profiles some successes in avoiding disasters.

For example, the Red Cross says in one region of Vietnam where homes are annually destroyed by flooding, the Red Cross replaced lost homes with stronger, flood-resistant ones. Local communities helped with the design and building of these homes and in the next flood season, just one home out of more than 2,400 was destroyed.

Red Cross President Astrid Heiberg told last week's news conference that the organization plans to place more emphasis on long-term recovery needs to avoid the repetition of disasters so common to the developing world.

"We need to target -- and better, to rebuild -- the local economies and the communities, and to do that donors need to take into account the links, the close links, between relief, rehabilitation, and development and to involve the local people more in determining the kind of help they need, because they know [what is] best."

Heiberg said relief agencies need to better target their resources to build resilient, sustainable neighborhoods and communities that can more effectively withstand disasters. Until now, she says, there has been too much emphasis on "quick fixes."