Famine threatens to ravage Central Asian countries

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Famine threatens to ravage Central Asian countries By Owen Bowcott

LONDON: While the world's attention is focused on war in Afghanistan, three successive years of severe drought have created conditions for a famine which is threatening neighbouring Central Asian countries.

Triggered by the lowest rainfall in living memory, vast tracts of Iran, Uzbekistan, Pakistan and Tajikistan are being reduced to desert as the water table sinks, long-established wells dry up and herds of livestock perish.

The crisis appears to fulfil alarming climate change predictions suggesting that states along the old Silk Road will experience steeper rises in temperature than any other region on earth. By the end of the century it will be 5 degrees centigrade hotter in an area which regularly sees the thermometer soar above 40 degrees centigrade.

The study, published last year by the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the UK's University of East Anglia, predicted that Asian countries from Kazakhstan to Saudi Arabia will warm up more than twice as much as others. "Several states," the report added, "including Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Iran, (are facing) famine."

In Tajikistan, the United Nations appealed for aid to avert disaster. "Substantial foreign aid is needed or else there will be a large-scale famine," said Matthew Kahane, the UN's humanitarian aid coordinator, speaking from the capital, Dushanbe. "The country has had its lowest rainfall for 75 years. Families who survived last year by selling their cows and chickens now have no other means of coping. Some households have sold the glass out of their windows and the wooden beams from their roofs to raise money for food."

The drought is exacerbated by another man-made ecological disaster in the nearby Aral Sea - once the world's third largest inland expanse of water - which was heavily exploited for irrigation to boost cotton production under the Soviet regime and is now close to drying up.

In May, the Uzbek government appealed to the World Bank, the United Nations and the international community for urgent help to overcome food and water shortages. "Low rainfall and a heatwave caused water levels to fall further," the government in Tashkent noted. "This year the catastrophic shortage of water is on a larger scale. During the dry months, the Amu Darya river disappeared in the desert before even reaching the Aral Sea."

In two provinces, Karakalpakstan and Khorazm, only half the normal crops could be planted because of a lack of water for irrigation. "About 100,000 people have temporarily become unemployed." A sharp decline in the level of underground water left a "significant number of inhabited localities deprived of drinking water".

Before Osama bin Laden's attacks on New York and Washington, the UN had begun coordinating international efforts to tackle the gathering disaster. The UN development programme convened a meeting on drought mitigation in Iran during the summer bringing together experts from Afghanistan, India, Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

Another UN body, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), put out a bleak report in July warning that five Iranian cities, including Tehran, were reduced to rationing water. "The rural population and their livestock in central, eastern and southern parts of Iran have started migrating from their villages to other areas in search of water," OCHA warned.

"Over 200,000 nomadic livestock owners have lost, or continue to lose, their only source of livelihood. Last year Iran purchased seven million tonnes of wheat, becoming the world's biggest importer. This year, this figure may increase further, as farmers are expecting reduction of (up to) 75 per cent in wheat and barley production in drought-affected provinces.

"Many internationally known wetlands and lakes, such as the Hamoun wetland in Sistan & Balochistan, Lake Kaftar, and Lake Bakhtegan in Far province, are completely dry. The increasing number and severity of bush fires and sandstorms (are damaging) wildlife and the livelihood of local population. Some species face the threat of extinction."

Here, the Iranian embassy describes the drought as a "forgotten disaster". The war against the Taliban has removed the issue from the international agenda, says Mashoud Nohasi, a government spokesman. "But the problem is still there."

The British charity Islamic Relief, which receives funds from the UK's Department for International Development (DfID), has been distributing emergency food relief in Balochistan and Sindh, the two worst affected provinces in Pakistan.

"People are saying they are digging deeper and deeper to find water in their wells," says Affan Cheema of Islamic Relief. "Many of them have told us this is the worst drought in their lifetime. There's not enough water to plant crops. It's getting progressively worse but it hasn't had the focus it requires because of the problems in Afghanistan."

The severity of the drought in those countries bordering Afghanistan is one reason why they have been reluctant to accept the exodus of refugees escaping the war. While Afghanistan has become the priority of aid agencies and international relief programmes, Iran, Pakistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikstan are finding it increasingly difficult to cope with their own starving and displaced populations.

The DFID on Monday said that it was reassessing the droughts in Central Asia. "Last year we spent $18 million on drought relief in the region," said a spokeswoman. "We are looking at what assistance we are providing." -Dawn/The Guardian News Service.

-- Joseph Antaree (jantaree@sonic.net), October 31, 2001


Drought, drought, everywhere. In more than sixty years of watching world-wide weather patterns I have never seen anything like it. I wonder what's going on.

-- Sparky (case@webtown.com), October 31, 2001.

The Lord, just like He has worked in the past, and how He promises to work in the future. It is not a mystery, it is all in the Bible. We would all do well to read about the One we will stand face to face with.

-- Phil Maley (maley@cnw.com), November 01, 2001.

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