02/22/2008, 00.00
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As people start to go hungry, first shipments of aid arrive

After the UN makes an appeal to help 250,000 hungry people who need immediate assistance and two million who need support to get through the winter, the international community starts to send aid. But harvests have been wiped out; the economy is running on empty and the end of the bitter cold (up to -30 C) won’t be enough to solve problems.

Dushanbe (AsiaNews/Agencies) – The first shipment of aid has arrived in Tajikistan after the United Nations issued a “flash appeal,” calling for an immediate international infusion of US$ 25.1 million in assistance to the Central Asian country. An exceptional cold snap, low energy supplies and high food prices have hammered the country, now at risk for pestilence.

“At least 260,000 people are in need of immediate food assistance,” the appeal stated grimly. “Moreover, the government reports that up to 2 million people may require food assistance through the end of the winter.” That is almost a third of the population (7 million).

In some areas temperatures dropped below 30º C. Rivers have frozen over, and the country’s decrepit and out-of-date hydroelectric power plants are running at 40 per cent capacity.

Neighbouring Uzbekistan has cut its energy supplies causing severe shortages of gas and electricity, with a knock-on effect on food supplies. But neighbouring Turkmenistan has responded to the UN appeal by agreeing to increase its daily electricity export to Tajikistan from 3.5million kilowatt-hours to 6 million.

The capital Dushanbe enjoys only ten hours of electricity a day; elsewhere it is four hours and in some districts nothing.

Power is reserved for essential services, but many hospitals are without heating and are using candles to keep consumption at a minimum.

Even factories have shut down. The authorities have also cut power to Dushanbe restaurants, cafes, and shops, ordering them to use candles instead.

In many places water pipelines burst from ice and people cannot use bathrooms.

Tajikistan’s Minister for Economic Development and Trade Gulomjon Bobozoda admitted at a February 18 news conference that the chronic power shortage was bound to have a “cumulative effect” on the economy.

The National Bank of Tajikistan has estimated the weather-related economic loss at US$ 250 million in January and February alone, a calamitous figure in a country where the annual state budget is roughly 0 million.

Losses in the mining sector because of the lack of power are estimated to be around 40 million somonis (about US$ 11.5 million). Milk and egg production could drop by 50 per cent. Basic food items have experienced high inflation in 2007; the price of wheat for instance climbed 70 per cent.

The damage caused to the country’s agricultural production might push prices even further in the coming months. The severe weather appears to have destroyed much of Tajikistan’s cotton and flower output, frozen its potato fields and damaged every kind of agricultural production.

Restlessness is growing in the population which sees new buildings and 5-star hotels rising in the capital and luxury cars speeding down its streets.

UN coordinator for Tajikistan Michael Jones warned that 64 per cent of Tajikistan’s population subsists on less than US$ 2 per day, whilst 41 per cent does not have access to reliable drinking water. Many Tajiks survive on emigrants’ remittances.

Everyone is waiting, hopeful that spring will soon arrive, but also full of fear that the melting snow and ice will bring flooding as it does every year. (PB)

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