Tajikistan faces uncertain future with growing food shortages
Oct 16, 2009, James Kilner
- Tajikistan's greatest commodity is perhaps the water
running off its mountains but now, 18 years after the fall of the Soviet Union, shortages are creating regional
tension and food supply problems.
The water crashes off the towering Pamir mountain range down to the great
rivers below which flow west through Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and into the Caspian and Aral Seas.
These rivers - carrying water from
the Pamirs in Tajikistan and the Tien Shan mountains in neighboring
Kyrgyzstan -- feed Central Asia's people.
A series of Soviet-designed canals and dams
turned the arid region between the mountains to the east and the seas to the
west into a patchwork of paddy and cotton fields. In return for water, during
Soviet times mountainous Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan received food and energy.
Then, in 1991, the Soviet Union broke up. "Since the collapse
of the Soviet
system hasn't worked," said Giovanni Munzo, land
and water officer for Central Asia at the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
Tajikistan is poor. The United Nations ranks
it at 127th out of 182 in its development index -- below Nicaragua but above Yemen. A person born in Tajikistan has a one-in-eight chance of dying
before they reach 40-years-old, U.N. statistics showed, while gross domestic
produce (GDP) per person stood at $551 in 2007, lower than Ghana.
Direct humanitarian assistance provides around
20 percent of its annual food consumption, Munzo
said. "Countries like Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are struggling to feed the
population," he said. "Humanitarian assistance is very important to
Perhaps most telling is that cash sent back by
Tajik family or friends working abroad (mainly men working in Russia) equaled
about 45 percent of Tajikistan's total GDP in 2007 -- by far the country with
the largest dependency from this type of income.
"WATER SUPPLY WORSENING"
Russia's building sector slowed
dramatically last year during a world economic recession, forcing constructors
to lay off thousands of Tajik laborers which in turn cut the cash flow back to Tajikistan.
Tajikistan, which has a population of 7
million and borders Afghanistan, can't afford to buy the energy it
needs to heat itself through the winter or enough food to eat.
In Dushanbe, Mavjuna Khotirova, 31, sold potatoes at a central market. "Water
has always been a problem," she said and looked down at her hands. "I
can see that every year the water supply is getting worse and worse."
Tension between the neighboring countries in Central Asia over water supplies in the region
is a constant worry to outsiders and threatens to spill over into conflict.
In winter energy supplies often dry up and the
lights and heating go out in Dushanbe, the scruffy Tajik capital ringed
In an effort to generate more energy during the
winter months Tajikistan has released water through its
hydro-electric dams, Munzo said. But this simply
ripped up areas of the downstream waterworks because they were not ready for
the sudden flow and further angered neighbors.
The end of the Soviet system not only triggered
arguments over water supply but it also diverted funds away from maintaining
This is a global problem, said the authors of
the report Revitalizing Asia's
Irrigation written by the International Water Management Institute earlier this
"As a major wheat and cotton producer, Central Asia is critical to global
agriculture," wrote the report's authors.
"Central Asia is one of the only areas in the
world where agriculture groundwater is decreasing due to technical
But as water supply in Central Asia drops, demand for it rises. The
United Nations estimates the population of the Central Asian republics will
grow from around 60 million now to nearly 80 million in 2050 and coupled with
rising living standards will roughly double demand for water.
In September, Tajikistan's President Imomali
Rakhmon made a speech in Geneva on worsening water shortages around
"The problem is particularly acute in the Central Asia where water is not only the basis
of socio-economic development, but the most important element of national and
regional security," he said.