Heart of Asia heads for famine

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The Independent Online

When Alexander the Great advanced into central Asia in 329BC it took his army five days to cross the three-quarters of a mile wide river Oxus using inflated skins stuffed with chaff as rafts.

When Alexander the Great advanced into central Asia in 329BC it took his army five days to cross the three-quarters of a mile wide river Oxus using inflated skins stuffed with chaff as rafts.

These days, if Alexander diverted his march a little to the west, his soldiers would be able to cross the Oxus, now called the Amu Darya, without getting their feet wet. The river peters out into a series of stagnant pools 200 miles from the Aral Sea into which it once flowed.

The worst drought to hit central Asia in three-quarters of a century is combining with the overuse of water in the cotton fields and the collapse of the old irrigation system to bring local farmers to brink of starvation.

In the village of Pobedi, in the parched plains of southern Tajikistan, close to where Alexander crossed the river, famine is only three months away. "Even to survive that long my family will have to eat the seed corn so we will have nothing to plant next year," said Ibot Sottorov as he stood beside a dry drainage ditch in Pobedi's main street. The people of Pobedi are traumatised by the speed with which their living standards have collapsed since the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991. Tajikistan, just north of Afghanistan, may have been poor compared with Russia but only 10 years ago its cotton and grain farmers owned cars and took holidays in Moscow and on the Black Sea.

Not any more. The 1,100 inhabitants of the village now rely on donkeys for transport. They have just one state-provided car for medical emergencies but it does not always work. "A family of five bought a poisoned fish and became ill," said Mr Sottorov, pointing to an abandoned cement-block house. "We could not get them to a hospital in time so they all died."

The United Nations confirms that the future of Tajikistan is as bleak as its inhabitants fear. Ross Mountain, a senior UN official from Geneva, said: "Nearly three million people out of a population of 6.2 million already face severe food shortages. Some 80 per cent of the population of Tajikistan is already below the poverty line. The country will become like Somalia."

In one respect the situation is worse than that in Somalia. Few people have heard of Tajikistan or know where it is. "It is simply not on the map so far as most people are concerned," Mr Mountain said. In so far as it is known at all it is as one of the five independent republics in former Soviet Central Asia, often referred to, with a sight undercurrent of contempt, by their final syllable as "the Stans". The UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs says that when it tried to organise a visit by potential aid donors they had to drop the idea because of lack of interest.

The most shocking aspect of the impending famine in Tajikistan is the speed with which a civilisation has collapsed. In the Middle East, along the Tigris and the Euphrates, archaeologists painstakingly investigate the remains of ancient cultures whose irrigation systems were destroyed by neglect and war over hundreds of years. In Tajikistan it took only a decade.

At first sight there seems to be plenty of water from the glaciers of the Pamir mountains in eastern Tajikistan. But a closer look at the canals shows that the water is stagnant and the pumps which used to send it gushing into the fields are broken beyond repair. "The desert is coming back," said Rakhmeddin Sangakov, a farmer, pointing bitterly to a barren patch of land not far from Pobedi. "I planted four sacks of seed and my harvest was just one-and-a-half sacks."

Mr Sangakov had fled to Afghanistan during the Tajik civil war which raged between 1992 and 1997 and in many ways he is sorry he ever came back. He recalls that his village was sacked in the first year of the fighting and 150 of its people killed. "The attackers stole everything," he says. "They had so much loot they filled an entire train with it."

On one point most Tajiks are agreed. Life was much better under the Soviet Union. "Who would ever have expected things to come to this," lamented Toshmat Hasanov, 78, a war veteran who had fought his way to Berlin in 1945. Sitting on a large empty irrigation pipe he says that only four families are left in his home village of Kumshoq while fifty have fled to the towns and cities. The people who stayed own fierce dogs to keep away wolves.

As part of the Soviet Union Tajikistan produced cotton, and food was largely imported. These days cotton is still grown, often given priority over food, because profits from its sale go to the government or local officials. "Villagers who do refuse to pick cotton often have the roof torn off their houses in retaliation," a local aid official said. "It is like a form of modern serfdom." In the midst of this ever-increasing misery only one product produces high profits in Tajikistan. This is heroin from small laboratories in Afghanistan. It is brought across the Pyandzh and Amu Darya rivers which border Tajikistan to the south and then smuggled into Russia and Western Europe.

Earnings from the trade make up some 35 per cent of Tajikistan's gross domestic product according to UN officials. Tajiks who transport the drug often leave one relative in the hands of the Afghan producers as a guarantee that they will be paid once the heroin is sold in Russia.

It seems impossible that the situation in Tajikistan could get much worse. But it may be about to do just that. The country is the most landlocked in the world. The nearest useable port for bringing in grain by train is Riga on the Baltic Sea. It is unlikely that food aid will arrive before the villagers of Pobedi begin to starve.