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Tajiks Fear Another Cold Winter Without Heat Or Electricity

Staying warm in Dushanbe in January wasn't easy.
Hanifa says she and her husband have spent all their savings to purchase enough coal and wood to keep their three-room apartment warm this winter.

"As soon as we get our October salary, we'll buy a wood-burning stove, and then our preparation for the winter will be complete," says the schoolteacher in the northern Tajik town of Khujand.

Hanifa's apartment block is connected to a centralized heating system, but the system has literally been paralyzed since the early 1990s.

"Everybody wants to get a stove, and coal and wood," she says. "After last year's experiences, people are very concerned. We had a meeting at school today, and our director said next winter will be even worse, so we have to install stoves in the classrooms. No one believes that we are going to have electricity and that our homes will be heated."

Tajiks across the country say one of their top priorities is storing up wood, coal, and essential foodstuffs for the upcoming winter.

They have reason to be concerned. Last year, Tajikistan experienced one of its coldest winters on record. Temperatures dropped below minus 20 degrees Celsius. Ice and snow blocked roads for weeks, isolating villages.

Compounding the problem was the near total lack of natural gas and severe shortages of electricity. At the same time, food prices soared, leaving residents of the impoverished country to subsist on the bare minimum.

Dozens, including some children, perished as a result of the cold. Rumors spread that newborn babies never made it out of maternity wards left without electricity.

Little Faith In Government Action

The government has never revealed the exact number of people who died as a result of last year's cold snap. But it appears eager to reassure people they won't face a similar energy crisis this winter.

Sharifkhon Samiev, the head of the Barki Tojik electricity company, says the authorities "are doing everything they can" to prevent the energy shortages that crippled the country last year.

This includes buying more than 1 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity from Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan for the winter season.

"We are planning to import 400 million kilowatt-hours of electricity from Turkmenistan during November and December. The government has ordered us to distribute the Turkmen electricity to households as our main priority," Samiev says. "As of November we will provide each household with four hours of electricity in the morning and another four in evening."

This has failed to ease concerns among the public, however. Similar electricity deals were signed with Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan in previous years, but the much-needed electricity failed to arrive on time. The authorities blamed Uzbekistan for hindering the transmission of electricity.

Tajik authorities say such problems will be alleviated "greatly" by the construction of a new block at the Sangtuda hydropower station in eastern Tajikistan. It is expected to be completed in mid-November.

But for now, people in rural areas and many cities say a strict rationing system is already in place, with some villagers claiming to receive just two hours of electricity a day.

Leaving For...Siberia?

Only certain sites and buildings classified as "strategically important" -- such as government offices, presidential residences, and central hospitals -- are reportedly exempt from rationing.

Officials have promised uninterrupted 24-hour electricity to Dushanbe. But residents of the capital have complained of constant, unexplained power cuts.

"Life simply stops in our high-rise building when we don't have electricity," says Mirzo, a journalist in Dushanbe. "You can't even put a kettle on to make tea, let alone cook or heat your home."

Mirzo, too, is thinking of installing a wood-burning stove in his flat for cooking and heating.

"During the winter we use only one room in our flat. It becomes our kitchen, dining and living room, as well as the bedroom for our family of six," he says. "We can't afford to heat all the rooms."

Like many Tajik migrant laborers, Mirzo's brother is taking their parents to Russia to ride out the winter. The elderly couple is staying in their son's rented flat in the Siberian city of Tyumen until early summer.

Living conditions there are not ideal, Mirzo says, "but at least we know that they won't freeze to death in Russia."

RFE/RL Central Asia Report

RFE/RL Central Asia Report

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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the region. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate and reintegrate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.