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Massive Starvation Possible in Tajikistan - 2001-08-21

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies says about one million people are on the brink of starvation in Tajikistan. The central Asian country is suffering the effects of two years of drought and two successive years of crop failure.

The Red Cross says Tajikistan is unable to feed its people. Little rainfall has meant almost no crops to harvest this year and has created a shortfall of more than 340,000 tons of wheat.

The humanitarian agency says the problem of drought is compounded by Tajikistan's dilapidated and failing irrigation system. Roger Bracke recently headed a Red Cross mission to the country. He says aid workers were shocked by the inability of Tajikistan families to cope with the acute food crisis.

"This year people showed us and told us about the massive sale of assets they had gone through to survive the winter," Mr. Bracke said. "And, the kind of assets they had been selling is quite dramatic. We are talking about [selling] windowpanes, for example. We are talking about [selling] doors, for example. We are talking about [selling] parts of roofs for example. We are talking about clothes they have, for example. We have seen families who have, for example, three pairs of shoes for five children."

Mr. Bracke says many children have dropped out of school because they are ashamed of their shabby clothes. Also, many of the children do not have shoes to wear in the winter.

Under the Soviet system, health care in Tajikistan was free, now many cannot afford it. Mr. Bracke says people are in poor health because of food shortages, bad water and sanitation, and lack of medical care.

"Chronic malnutrition levels are high. There is massive anemia for pregnant women," he said. "There is a lot of water-borne diseases, going from diarrhea to typhoid, for example. There are problems with tuberculosis. We have seen examples of abject poverty. This is a country where people have little coping capacities and we have seen them desperate. We have seen, for example children digging in rat holes to grab out of rat holes whatever they could find of wheat to take home and to make bread."

The Red Cross is appealing for $4 million of emergency assistance to 130,000 of the most vulnerable people in Tajikistan. This will provide them with essential food to see them through the winter months.

The aid will be used for health, water, and sanitation, and Mr. Bracke says some of the money will go to buy winter shoes and clothing for 65,000 children to enable them to continue going to school.