Tajikistan accuses Uzbekistan of provoking humanitarian crisis

By bne IntelliNews April 4, 2012

Clare Nuttall in Almaty -

Tajikistan is on the brink of a humanitarian crisis, pushed to the brink by a long-running blockade of food and fuel imports by Uzbekistan, a statement issued by the Tajik embassy in Moscow on April 3 says.

The statement complains that Tashkent has been carrying out a systematic blockade since 2010 in a bid to pressure Tajikistan to drop plans for construction of the Roghun dam. The latest blow was the complete cut-off of Uzbek gas exports to Tajikistan on midnight April 1.

The move has hit domestic consumers and industrial users alike, with Tajikistan's largest company, the Tajikistan Aluminium Company (Talco), now reportedly mulling an expensive overhaul that would allow its smelter to run on coal. Electricity is due to be rationed until the country's hydropower plants reach full capacity in late April, while only a small area of central Dushanbe near the presidential residence is currently receiving gas supplies, Reuters reports.

Ostensibly the reason for the stopping of gas supplies is that Uzbekistan wants to free up its gas for exports to new customer China. However, while Turkmenistan has said it is willing to supply Tajikistan with gas, Uzbekistan has also refused to allow the transit of gas from Turkmenistan through its territory.

This follows more than two years of hold ups of railcars on the Tajik-Uzbek border, sometimes for as long as several months. The rail blockade has affected not only industrial imports but also food, which has cuased hardship for the population given Tajikistan is a net importer of wheat and other basics. Dushanbe claims that at times, as many as 1,000 railcars have been waiting at the border and at Uzbek railway stations.

The embassy statement accuses the Uzbek authorities of carrying out "an undeclared and permanent economic blockade imposed on Tajikistan and aimed at destabilization of the socio-economic situation in the country," and warns of worse to come. "If situation continues in the same way," the statement warns, "it will lead to further deterioration of living conditions of the people of Tajikistan and threatens to turn into a humanitarian catastrophe."

Currently the only rail route into mountainous Tajikistan is from Uzbekistan, as the two countries are at the far end of the rail network built during the Russian imperial era, which stretches from Moscow to the Afghan border. Tajikistan's connection is via a single line that enters the country at the Tursanzade border crossing, about 60 km west of Dushanbe. A spur extends the line to the southern towns of Qurgonteppa and Kulob.

The situation has worsened since the destruction of a bridge in an apparent terrorist attack on the Uzbek section of the line in November. That incident halted transit to south Tajikistan altogether. However, reports published on Uzbek opposition websites describe the damage as inconsistent with a bombing, and led to speculation that the bridge was deliberately destroyed.

The Tajik embassy statement points out that four months on, no effort has been made to repair the bridge. It also alleges that Uzbekistan is now starting to dismantle that section of the railway altogether - raising the threat that south Tajikistan will be permanently cut off from the international railway system.

The line is the main source of imports to southern and central Tajikistan, as well as the remote Gorno Badakhshan Autonomous Region. South Tajikistan, which borders both Afghanistan and Uzbekistan, is separated from the north of the country by two mountain ranges spanned by a single road, parts of which have not been resurfaced since the end of the Soviet era. These are inaccessible in bad weather, while the tunnel under the Anzob pass just north of Dushanbe is so dangerous it has been dubbed the "Tunnel of Death" by Tajiks.

The statement warns that a continued blockade could cause "a humanitarian catastrophe" in parts of Tajikistan, poorest of the post-Soviet republics, where many of the population already live in extreme poverty. According to Unicef, almost one third of Tajik children are undersized for their age, and 35% of deaths of children under five years of age are due to malnutrition.

Making the situation worse at present, Tajikistan has just experienced a period of extremely cold weather. Following an appeal from Tajik President Emomali Rakhmon, Russia delivered an emergency airlift of humanitarian aid including tents, heating appliances and food on April 1.

Tashkent has consistently denied that the blockade is deliberate, although similar tactics have frequently been used in the past. Uzbekistan has made no secret of its opposition to the construction of the Roghun hydropower plant on the Vakhsh river near to Dushanbe, while the Tajik government is equally insistent that the project is vital to supply a large part of Tajikistan's energy needs and free up additional electricity for export to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The Uzbek government has stressed the dangers of building a dam of this size in an area of high seismic activity, although Dushanbe insists the dam will be built to withstand most earthquakes. The main thrust of Tashkent's concern though is the effect the dam could have on water supplies for Uzbek agriculture, and in particular its lucrative cotton industry.

The Tajik government has agreed to hold off on construction of the dam until a international assessment commissioned by the World Bank is completed, but work on the surrounding infrastructure is well underway, and Dushanbe is unlikely to abandon the project.

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