TAJIKISTAN: Drought conditions exacerbated by poor infrastructure

DUSHANBE, 31 January (IRIN) - While the scarcity of snow on the mountains and minimal rainfall are prompting fears that Tajikistan could face another severe drought this year, ecology experts in the capital Dushanbe have warned that the country's decaying infrastructure and poor management have exacerbated mother nature's wrath.

Ecologia, a local NGO that specialises in water and sanitation issues, told IRIN that minimal rainfall over the past year was only half the story. Although the drought contributed significally to hardship this winter, Ecologia believes that the acute water shortage, which led to the poor harvest, was due more to Tajikistan's collapsed and cash-starved water management system.

"This drought simply gave it a small push and the weak infrastructure fell down," Ecologia's Country Director Ikram Davronov told IRIN. "The problem has accumulated year after year since independence and civil war. The government has been unable to keep any kind of water management system functioning."

Tajikistan's fragile economic situation has only magnified the implications of the drought. According to Davronov there is a lack of basic materials such as chlorine for water purification. Public facilities, including schools and health clinics, no longer have running water or adequate sanitation systems. The UN estimates that 40 percent of the Tajik population lack access to safe water and that almost 60 percent of rural populations use unprotected sources, such as open drains and irrigation canals.

Davronov said the current mild weather means that Tajikistan's glaciers have not been replenished as usual with snow, and this would adversely affect the availability of water in summertime. Equally disturbing, however, is that what water there is next year is likely to be poorly managed. Tajikistan's water infrastructure system was last properly maintained in Soviet times, when Tajikistan produced over 1 million mt of cotton and could afford upkeep and rehabilitation. After independence and civil war, cotton exports slumped - along with world cotton prices - to a third of its normal production. As a result, no funds were available for any maintenance.

Davronov explained that the national system for water management was operating at half its capacity last summer. The drainage system had also broken down in irrigated areas. These factors led to a rise in the water table, thousands of hectares of arable land salting up and reducing crop output.

"During the drought we found 350 submersible pumps that needed to be rehabilitated. Who knows what the situation is now," he said.

Meanwhile, the worst regional drought in 74 years has destroyed food crops over a large part of Tajikistan, has rendered almost half of the 6.2 million people in the country vulnerable to the threat of famine.