Food supplies dwindle as extreme winter drags on


March 26, 2012

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This winter has been unusually severe in the Rasht Valley of Tajikistan. And as food supplies dwindle, livestock suffer, transportation becomes impossible, and electricity is rationed, our field teams are carefully monitoring the precarious circumstances to ensure essential measures are taken to prevent the situation from getting worse.

Snow arrived here at least a month earlier than normal in November, accompanied by several severe cold spells. More than six feet have accumulated in some places as snow continues to fall, and the heavy drifts have caused some roofs to collapse.

Scarce electricity

As the winter drags on, coal and other heating supplies are now running low and prices have risen exponentially. Households cannot rely on electric heaters and many businesses have closed since electricity rations have been reduced to as little as one-and-a-half hours of service each day. Even basic communication is difficult as the power supply is not enough to recharge mobile phones.

Hungry animals

Many households are struggled to feed their livestock in addition to their families. Supplies of hay expected to last four months have already been exhausted, and the cost of a bundle is now between eight and 16 times its normal price. Some have turned to using their own pumpkins, carrots and potato seeds in an attempt to keep their animals from starving. Of course, using stored seeds now means they will have nothing to plant in the spring unless they are able to afford to buy potato seeds.

The severe winter compounds already fragile conditions in Rasht Valley.

Food shortages

The latest assessment by the World Food Program (Sept. – Dec. 2011) declared almost 200,000 residents in an “Acute Food and Livelihood Crisis” due to high food and fuel costs and the loss of harvests in the early, harsh winter. As predicted in the report in February, food stocks continue to be depleted has weather conditions have prevented supplies from reaching communities and animals from returning to pasture.

Two jamoats (sub-districts) where Mercy Corps works are feeling particularly hard-hit. In the high villages of Askalon Jamoat, there is no food left in the shops, and households are completely reliant on their own dwindling supplies as access is completely cut off. In Sangvor Jamoat, supplies for both people and animals are almost exhausted, and animal deaths have been reported.

Blocked roads

In fact, the entire Tavildara District has been cut off from the rest of the country for months. The United Nations has declared the only route to Rasht Valley off-limits due to the high risk of avalanche.

For those villages not cut off, travel by road to reach markets is extremely difficult. Travel to the capital for medical care is dangerous and slow as snow-clearing equipment can’t keep up with the snowfall. Multiple deaths due to avalanche have been reported recently.

Response to winter crisis

Mercy Corps has worked in the Rasht Valley of Tajikistan since 1998, supporting communities first to recover from a devastating civil war and in recent years to strengthen economic development through improved agriculture practices, vocational skills for youth, and the rehabilitation and reconstruction of roads, bridges and irrigation systems.

Confronted with this extreme winter, our Rasht Valley office has alerted the Tajikistan emergency response network about the current situation and recommended actions like clearing vital roads and increasing the electricity supply, which could improve conditions quickly. Steps needed to address a potential food security crisis should become clearer in the coming weeks and months. We’re ready to help these vulnerable communities respond to immediate crisis even as our current programs focus on making them more productive and resilient when spring finally arrives.