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Last Updated: Tuesday, 12 February 2008, 10:02 GMT
Winter shortages fuel Tajik anger
By Natalia Antelava
BBC News, Dushanbe

Children carrying containers of water
For some Tajik families, drinking water can only be fetched on foot
Tajikistan is well-versed in hardship, but this winter has been too much.

Millions of people here are trying to survive without heat, water or electricity in temperatures that stay well below zero.

In a freezing maternity ward, outside the capital Dushanbe, nurses and doctors scurry as Unicef, accompanied by health ministry officials, deliver emergency supplies of extra blankets and small gas heaters.

One of the officials is quick to assure me that all the hospital needs are being met, and the situation is under full control.

But in a quiet room, a few feet away, nurses speak of their worries.

"It's horrible," one of them says as she wraps a newborn baby girl in several layers of blankets.

The maternity ward, she explains, has no heating, and only a limited electricity supply.

"We are terrified that this will become worse, we have children here who are sick, who need special attention. We need electricity," she adds.

She lays the baby down and gently slips a bottle of hot water next to her.

It is the best heating method they have, but it does not always work.

Power failures

In the past few weeks, a number of babies are reported to have died in hospitals across the country, although no-one knows how many.

Tajik couple

There is no official data, because the government says the deaths are not related to the energy crisis.

But aid workers disagree.

"There have been deaths prompted by the cold weather and power failures, but all these reports are anecdotal.

"Unfortunately there are no official reports about these deaths," says Sobir Kurbonov, a Unicef health worker.

Some international aid workers suggest that the general lack of transparency has made it very difficult to estimate the scale of the problem.

But now, there is no longer any doubt that Tajikistan could face a serious humanitarian crisis.

On Wednesday, the Tajik government appealed for emergency aid and together with international donors it is now designing an action plan aimed at easing the situation.

Frozen rivers

The crisis has already gone far beyond power supplies, affecting every sphere of this impoverished and fragile society.

Humanitarian agencies say hundreds of thousands of people are suffering from severe food shortages.

"People are spending all they have on trying to keep warm, and they don't have enough money to buy food," says Zlatan Milisic, the country director for the UN's World Food Programme.

This country has no future
Ermokhmad
Tajik
And things are likely to get worse before they get better.

With rivers frozen, the country's hydropower stations continue to slow down.

Nurek, the main plant, is losing its reservoir of water.

Set high up in the mountains and surrounded by snow-covered peaks, Nurek is like a giant bathtub that has been unplugged.

Energy experts predict that within days the water will reach the critical level, and the whole country could shut down.

'Harder and harder'

The government's mammoth task is to keep Tajikistan away from slipping into a stone age.

But some believe its too late for that.

"This country has no future," says Ermokhmad, an intelligent, soft-spoken man, who lives in the outskirts of the capital.

Woman and baby in hospital
Aid workers say babies have died because of the cold
"Is this what you call life?" he asks as he shows me around his house.

The tour is quick. To keep warm, all 10 members of his family live in one room.

It's lit by a bleak kerosene lamp; they do not remember the last time they saw electricity.

The air is heavy and full of smoke. In the corner, Ermokhmad's four children, their heads buried in school textbooks, are sitting on the floor next to the crackling woodstove.

Gurgling on top of it is their dinner - rice porridge.

Ermokhmad has a long list of complaints, and an even longer list of questions.

Why is it, he asks, that his children have to walk for an hour every day to get to the nearest school? Why is every winter more and more difficult for him and his neighbours? Why have prices gone up so much?

He does not seem to have many answers, but he does have a solution.

"I will go to Russia," he says.

That is what hundreds of thousands of Tajiks have already done.

"Soon there will be no young people left here - just elderly and women. Everyone is going away. I want to save money for the ticket to Russia, so that I can feed my family from there," Ermokhmad says.

A few minutes later, as he expands on his plans, he jokes that he may even marry a Russian woman. His own, Tajik, wife does not seem excited about the prospect. Yet she is willing to let him go.

"We have to eat," she says.

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