The International Crisis Group recently stated that Tajikistan, a small country bordering Afghanistan, is “on the road to failure.”
For the second winter in a row, the country is facing energy infrastructure problems. Hundreds of Tajiks died in the cold or went hungry last winter, due to electricity shortages and crop devastation. This year, the U.S. has pledged $5 million in emergency aid to help needy Tajiks.
Ilan Greenberg of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting ventures to the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, and writes in the “Untold Stories” blog about the country’s crippling problems.
On the Turkish Airlines flight into Dushanbe, the young American woman sitting next to me was enthusiastic about her next three days of personal freedom in Tajikistan. She is a political officer at the U.S. embassy in Afghanistan. “I’m looking forward to being able to walk around on streets,” she told me in a slight southern twang. “It will feel good to be in a normal city.”
Dushanbe comes off well when compared to, say, Kabul. But the Tajik capital fares less well in comparison to most other places. Running water and electricity are pretty constant in the tree-lined city center. But basic, working infrastructure degrades the farther it is from government ministries and the presidential residence dominating Dushanbe’s low rise urban nucleus. Drive just a few minutes and street lights stop working, apartment block windows flicker by minuscule candle light, and only the piercing of flashlights break the blackness in alleyways and courtyards.
The situation is even more dire outside Dushanbe’s city limits. Tajikistan’s borders are heavily patrolled by soldiers and guards (with significant assistance from American drug enforcement officials) trying to interdict the huge poppy smuggling coming out of neighboring Afghanistan in the south (or profit from it, in which case presumably without assistance from American drug enforcement officials) and with the smuggling of about everything else from Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan to the north and east.
The countryside is wracked by devastating problems – from catastrophic water and energy shortages to rampant child labor practices in the cotton fields to jobless villages where Tajik men returning from Russia face unending unemployment. Last winter was catastrophic for farmers – a devastating cold front moved into the country and stayed for months, knocking out the winter crop. People froze and went hungry. This winter was warmer, but farmers continue to buckle under the hardships of lack of accessible water, lack of electricity, and the widespread and enforced requirement to grow unprofitable and unsustainable cotton.
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