Back to Magazine

Tadjikistan - the silent emergency
by Erja-Outi Heino

For years a forgotten conflict Tajikistan is now, sadly, a forgotten emergency. Tajikistan is suffering from the effects of the worst drought to hit it in 75 years. But the Red Crescent Society of Tajikistan and the International Federation are struggling to get the support they want, to give people the help they need.

In the residential area of Komsomolskaja Ploschadka three boys are rolling a huge snowball. First snow means first snowman. It is a special occasion as this is the first snow in about two years in northern Tajikistan.

The first snow has brought both hope and despair. The hope is, if the snow persists, come spring it might help bring an end to the drought. The despair is that people are hungry and cold - now.

Last September, the International Federation launched an appeal to alleviate hunger caused by the drought in Tajikistan. The drought appeal has had a dry response itself. Only 15 per cent of the 22.5 million Swiss francs sought has been provided. So, badly needed food aid has been delayed.

The urgent need

The International Federation's field monitor knocks on the door of one of the almost identical white houses set in a neat row. Twelve-year-old Nozik Potso answers. She is in charge of her siblings and the household while her mother is visiting relatives. Her father left to find work in Russia several months ago. Nozik misses him, of course. But what else could they do? The community was built around a collective farm. The Soviet era ended and although the kolhoz (farm) is still there, it doesn't make the Potso family any money. The small lot the family has is barren because of the drought that hit Tajikistan last year.

Nozik's little brother does not want to play in the snow with his sisters. He is shy and hides inside, behind the curtain and underneath an old TV set. The sisters don't really mind. The family has only one pair of old rubber boots and a pair of large, well-worn slippers for the children to share. So, they can't go out at the same time anyway.

By March, Nozik's family will have received 50 kilos of wheat flour and four litres of oil. It is the first half of the food basket they'll receive from the Red Crescent Society of Tajikistan, which is providing help to 68,000 people in the Sugdi region of northern Tajikistan.

No rain, no seeds, no harvest - witnessing the destructive spiral caused by Tajikistan's drought.

The forgotten appeal

Although the Red Crescent Society of Tajikistan and the International Federation are distributing food, they are only reaching half as many people as they would have liked. Between food packages being handed out in the north, and the distribution of food given by the World Food Programme (WFP) in the south, many people who had been targeted in the initial appeal are not being reached.

Other than food, the appeal was meant to provide seeds and improve access to clean water. For lack of funds, the seeds are on hold and that puts the next harvest in jeopardy.

The drought in Tajikistan is an example of what is called 'a slow-onset emergency'. It doesn't have the impact of, say, an earthquake. Silent, gradual suffering is no less real but it cannot compete with dramatic images of collapsed buildings or people buried in rubble.
"It's not acute like in El Salvador, where the needs of the people are clear and graphic," says Roger Bracke, who headed the International Federation's two assessment missions to Tajikistan. "But you have to realize that while hundreds of thousands of people are suddenly affected by an earthquake, the numbers in Tajikistan are dramatic too, even if the pictures are not. In Tajikistan, we are talking about 1.5 million people. How can we compare the two? Both need our support."

But what happens when an appeal goes virtually unheard?

"Certain groups of people will die," says Bracke. "They won't hit the news, because we cannot prove that they died from hunger. But they will die because their coping mechanisms aren't as strong as they used to be. They are not able to ward off infections."
Bracke says that a large number of Tajik children are particularly at risk. Many of them are already suffering from malnutrition. Poor nutrition makes it harder to concentrate in school, if indeed parents send their children to school at all in the winter. It is difficult to go to school barefoot.


The forgotten people

A list of the ten most underfunded appeals
issued by the International Federation in 2000:

Russian Federation - relief assistance
India - capacity building
Georgia - drought
Pakistan - capacity building
Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova - long-term humanitarian assistance
Africa, Middle East North Africa, Asia Pacific - polio eradication
South Africa - cholera
Tajikistan - drought
Cuba - capacity building
China - earthquakes

Those we reached

The ten most successful appeals last year:

Indonesia - landslides
Capacity building fund for global programmes
Paraguay - drought
Belize - Hurricane Keith
Laos - floods
Kazakhstan - floods
India - floods
Pacific regional development - capacity building
Papua New Guinea - long-term humanitarian assistance
Indonesia - earthquake


The almost daily bread

Mohtsnisa Malikova, a mother of seven, asks the monitor from the International Federation to look inside her home. The floor of one room is covered with stunted maize. The whole family lives in another room, it's warmer that way. The corn spells poverty as wheat bread is the foundation of the Tajik diet. Without it, people go hungry. Mohtsnisa explains that the family has been eating only corn bread for weeks. Now one of the children is sick.

People have exhausted their own resources and sold everything they have to sell. "People believe they are facing another year of drought. That is why they have either sold or eaten their seed potatoes. There is no use in planting if there is no rain," says Axel Pawolek, the International Federation's relief administrator in Sugdi.

In the north, the poor response to the appeal means it will take longer getting aid to the people who need it. People have already lived through several hungry months. The lack of seeds means that next year won't be any easier.
In the south, the situation is worse.

"We are doing what we can with the existing resources but it is very clear that this is not enough. We have not reached about a half of the intended beneficiaries," says Lotta Relander, head of the International Federation's delegation in Tajikistan.
It's a frustrating problem faced by other humanitarian organizations working in Tajikistan. The country is on the WFP's "World Hunger Map" listed as one of the areas of concern in 2001. Tajikstan is also ranked number one on UNICEF's list of "Under-funded Appeals" for 2000.

"Normally we enter the scene when the disaster has already taken place," says Louise Montgrain, relief coordinator for the drought operation. "For once we arrived when something could still be done to prevent it. But because of lack of money we cannot do enough and the catastrophe is getting worse."

Although it is snowing in some places, there is hardly any snow in the mountains - unless it comes, the drought ravaging Tajikistan will continue and a new appeal may have to be launched before the summer.

Erja-Outi Heino
Erja-Outi Heino is the Federation information delegate based in Dushanbe, Tajikistan.


Top | Contact Us | Credits | Current issue | Webmaster

2001 | Copyright