DEVELOPMENT-CENTRAL ASIA: Thrashed by Drought and Soviet Legacy

By Gustavo Capdevila

GENEVA, Aug 21 (IPS) - A persistent drought and the economic transformations since the collapse of the Soviet Union have greatly exacerbated poverty in some Central Asian republics, said humanitarian aid organisations Tuesday as they issued an appeal for international help.

The areas hit hardest by agricultural and health crises are found in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, according to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

Tajikistan, considered the poorest of the republics that formed part of the Soviet Union until 1991, faces its fourth consecutive year of drought.

The cereal and grain harvests this year are predicted to reach barely half the volume of the 2000 harvest. Government authorities have already requested food-aid consisting of some 500,000 tons of wheat and supplies of meat, oil, sugar and dairy products.

The origin of the hardships in Tajikistan is not just the persistent lack of rainfall. Roger Bracke, head of a Red Cross-Red Crescent assessment team that visited the country, said that with the break-up of the Soviet Union the country of 6.5 million had to embark on profound economic reforms.

Under the planned Soviet economy, Tajikistan was expected to produce cotton and aluminium, and in exchange could rely on other regions of the Soviet Union to cover its food and other needs as necessary.

In that era, ''parts of the country were provided with almost all the commodities they needed,'' Bracke said. Few can remember the droughts prior to 1991 because they were, to a great extent, economically irrelevant phenomenon, he explained.

''But virtually overnight, with independence, Tajikistan had to build up an economy that would cover all its needs,'' said the Red Cross-Red Crescent official.

The 1992-1997 civil war in Tajikistan only exacerbated the situation because, despite the fact that peace has been restored, foreign investors continue to be reticent to channel money into the country.

The World Bank, however, has praised the government's economic austerity measures and growth levels, which have averaged five percent annually.

But in an economy of barely a billion dollars in gross domestic product (GDP), ''that level of growth generates only limited additional capacity to improve the population's living standards, reduced at best to 50 percent'' of the levels recorded during the former communist regime.

Approximately three quarters of the Tajik people live in rural areas and, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, have become increasingly reliant on subsistence farming.

Bracke's study indicates that under current conditions the Tajik economy does not have sufficient capacity to cover the additional expenditures arising from failed harvests or other calamities.

The Geneva-based Red Cross-Red Crescent, which says approximately four million dollars are needed to fund its aid operations in Tajikistan, underscored the serious nature of the problems the Tajik people are also facing in the areas of health and education.

The country inherited an extensive and costly health system that quickly became financially unsustainable after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The current budget of the Ministry of Health headquarters is just 40,000 Somoni (approximately 17,000 dollars). And the average monthly salary for doctors is two or three Somoni (0.7 to 1.20 dollars).

''There is sufficient evidence that the Ministry of Health is unable to provide free health care anymore. Patients have to pay a consultation fee and buy their own medicines,'' said Bracke as he presented the study at a Geneva press conference Tuesday.

''Morbidity and mortality statistics... do not represent the actual situation in Tajikistan. Some 42 percent of the population cannot afford to see a doctor and hence do not appear in official statistics,'' says the report.

The Red Cross-Red Crescent team that visited Tajikistan further recommends the distribution of clothing and shoes to school-aged children so that they can continue their education.

The aid workers reported that they were surprised by the number of families who admitted they were too ashamed to send their children to school because of the tattered state of their clothing and lack of shoes.

The Red Cross-Red Crescent's plan of action is to address these matters, as well as water and sanitation issues, but stresses that ''the only way for Tajikistan to overcome its problems is through long-term investment by the international community. It is a country that has been largely neglected - it now needs some urgent attention.''

In Uzbekistan, meanwhile, the two-year drought has mainly hurt the province of Karakalpakstan, which is suffering the effects of low water levels in the Amu Darya River and the Aral Sea.

The Red Cross-Red Crescent warned in the Uzbek case that many of the problems the assessment team identified - land and water management, evaporation of the Aral Sea - ''are of a structural nature and will not be solved by emergency operations.''

The organisation has requested international funding worth 600,000 dollars to attend to the most urgent needs of some 20,000 people of the province's population of 1.4 million.

For its part, the government in Tashkent, the Uzbek capital, have appealed to United Nations agencies to provide wheat flour and vegetable oil for the country's most vulnerable families.

In contrast to neighbouring Tajikistan, the republic of Uzbekistan, with 24 million inhabitants, ''has handled the enormous economic challenges that followed the end of the centralised and integrated Soviet economic system relatively well,'' said Bracke.

The country possesses natural gas, petroleum and gold resources and cotton is its main export earner. It is a nation that has overcome its internal conflicts but some regions continue to suffer severe infrastructure problems.

Dating back to the Soviet era, Central Asia's two principal rivers - the Amu Darya and Syr Darya - have been over-exploited to irrigate the region's cotton fields.

The most visible environmental legacy of the Soviet irrigation policy is the depletion of the Aral Sea, the world's third largest inland sea. It is on the verge of disappearing due to ''the huge amount of water being diverted to cotton production,'' reports the Red Cross-Red Crescent.

The Uzbek agricultural sector is almost completely dependent upon irrigation.

In the province of Karakalpakstan, located near the Aral and the Amu Darya River, the humanitarian aid federation is planning to distribute supplementary food rations over the coming four months and will launch an information campaign about water-borne diseases. (END/IPS/CI AP/DV IF/TRA-SO LD/PC/DM/01)