Strained by the coldest winter in 30 years, Tajikistan's Soviet-era infrastructure has buckled, leaving millions of its citizens without water and electricity. Aid groups have been quick to step in, but the mountainous Central Asian republic is facing a serious humanitarian crisis which could spark unrest in this volatile region, experts warn.
Russia, Kazakhstan, and US aid groups have responded to a $25 million appeal from the United Nations for emergency assistance last week, after water and sewage pipes burst – even in the capital city of Dushanbe, where temperatures reached minus 13 degrees F.
During the bitter cold snap that began in late January, rivers froze solid, virtually shutting down the giant Nurek hydroelectric station that is the only source of power for the isolated republic of 7 million. Emergency services were swamped.
About 260,000 Tajiks are in need of immediate food assistance, and up to 2 million face starvation by winter's end if they don't receive swift help, according to the UN. The country urgently needs supplies of portable generators, kerosene stoves, food, blankets and warm clothes.
"Everything is paralyzed, our water systems are wrecked, and we need a lot of emergency supplies right away," says Mekhtodji Makhmadi, an official of the Tajik ministry of emergency services in Dushanbe. "The consequences of [this crisis] are very hard, and our people will be suffering from it for a long time to come."
Even though Dushanbe enjoyed a seasonable 41 degrees F. on Wednesday, aid workers warn that the crisis may worsen.
"Many people are still suffering with the combination of no electricity and no water, and the effects of this add up," says Stephen Johnson, an emergency adviser for UNICEF who was rushed to the Tajik capital last week. "Many schools, hospitals and other vital services are still without any water supply."
The Tajik government says the country's industry is at a virtual standstill, while food production and distribution businesses are at less than half capacity due to power shortages and transportation paralysis.
Unexpectedly heavy snowfalls have blocked roads, cut access to remote mountain regions of the country, and raised concern about flash floods when the spring thaw begins.
Various US aid agencies have pledged about $2.5 million.
Tajikistan was the poorest republic in the former Soviet Union. Its infrastructure was largely destroyed during a bitter four-year civil war that ended in 1997 with the defeat of Islamist rebels based in next-door Afghanistan.
Even before the current crisis, according to UN figures, about two-thirds of Tajikistan's people subsisted on less than $2 per day, while 41 percent lacked regular access to clean drinking water.
Despite some improvements, experts say that under the increasingly authoritarian President Emomali Rakhmon – who was reelected to another seven-year term in 2006 with no serious opposition – little has been done to rebuild shattered infrastructure, especially in far-flung mountain communities, and that his administration is ill-equipped to deal with a social crisis.
"The Tajik president has concentrated power so narrowly that he's lost any idea of what's happening beyond the capital city," says Andrei Grozin, head of Central Asian studies at the official Institute of Commonwealth of Independent States in Moscow. "The authorities are simply not able to cope with the problems, which means they can keep growing till they reach a critical mass."
Experts warn that any popular unrest that breaks out in Tajikistan could have ripple effects throughout the volatile former Soviet Central Asian region, and possibly spread to the Tajik-populated regions of northern Afghanistan.
• Researcher Olga Podolskaya contributed to this report.