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GIEWS Update-detail
FAO/GIEWS Global Watch

15 February 2008

Extreme Cold Exacerbating Poverty and Food Insecurity in Central Asia

Extreme cold and inadequate heating are exacerbating food insecurity and poverty in Central Asia, causing death, illness and incapacitation amongst the most vulnerable populations. Areas of Afghanistan and Tajikistan are hardest hit, along with rural areas of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. In Tajikistan the emergency has been compounded by a severe energy deficit reaching emergency proportions.

The whole region has experienced extremely cold conditions with temperatures reaching their lowest levels in over 25 years, with heavy snowfalls and avalanches isolating rural communities. With roads covered in icy snow, vehicles bringing food, fuel, medicines and other supplies are unable to reach isolated villages, which in turn cannot get their sick to medical stations.

In Tajikistan, the problem is most severe. The food security situation is part of a national emergency, officially declared on 6 February. Prolonged extremely cold weather, with the lowest temperatures experienced in over 25 years, have overwhelmed the aging infrastructure, financial and institutional capacity of this food-deficit country, About 60 percent of the population lives in poverty and cereal prices have risen sharply, reflecting high world prices and roads blocked by snow and avalanches. The extreme cold, which has frozen rivers, led initially to severe electricity rationing and now a virtual blackout as low water levels limit the amount of hydro-electricity which can be generated. Imports of electricity and gas are also limited by budget constraints and the increased own needs of the exporting neighbouring countries. While rural populations rely on other sources of heat, urban populations are without heating and water for long periods. Water pipes have also burst under the effect of the extreme cold. As in neighbouring Afghanistan many people, notably the sick, old and very young have died of cold and associated hunger. Livestock have also died. Farath, Badghis and Ghor provinces are particularly affected.

The 2007 aggregate output of cereals is provisionally estimated by FAO to be somewhat below 700 000 tonnes, about 25 percent less than the 2006 good harvest of 891 000 tonnes. The cereal import requirement for 2007/08 is, therefore, estimated at 506 000 tonnes, including 500 000 tonnes of wheat and 4 000 tonnes of rice. Food aid requirements are estimated at 60 000 tonnes, mainly wheat, but need to be carefully monitored. Given high world cereal prices and high levels of poverty in the country, it is uncertain whether commercial import needs, estimated 344 000 tonnes, can be covered. Early indications are that the cotton harvest will be below target this year.

Early prospects for the 2008 winter cereals (mainly wheat and barley) are favourable. Heavy snowfall will benefit winter cereals, of which about 40 percent receive some kind of irrigation. These are an important component of the annual cereal supply as they are less affected by hot and dry summer conditions.

In Afghanistan, extreme cold, avalanches and continued heavy snowfall have killed over 800 people and some 316 000 head of livestock in western parts of the country, notably in Herat and Badghis provinces. Older people and children have been particularly affected, Not only will loss of herds seriously affect livelihoods but many people, notably shepherds and their families, have suffered severe frostbite, requiring amputation of toes, fingers, whole hands and feet. Food and medical supplies have been running short as roads are blocked by heavy snowfall. Very low temperatures and high prices for fuel and cereals are taxing the poors’ access to basic essentials. In some of the hardest hit areas, food supplies are very limited as a result of adverse weather during the last growing season. The country is having difficulty in covering its 2007/2008 cereal import requirements, which are estimated at 690 000 tonnes, including 550 000 tonnes of wheat. The food aid requirement had been estimated at 100 000 tonnes of wheat. However, because of high world wheat prices, coupled with the low purchasing power of the bulk of the population, the commercial import requirement of 450 000 is unlikely to be met. Instability in neighbouring Pakistan also makes wheat imports more difficult and expensive. Early prospects for the 2008 wheat crop are favourable, following heavy snowfall in January that helped make up for below-normal precipitation at the beginning of the season. However, more rains are still needed in north-eastern provinces.

Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan have also been severely affected. In Turkmenistan, rural populations’ access to heating has reportedly been significantly curtailed. Increased heating fuel requirements have reduced the amount available for export to Tajikistan, especially given significant arrears in payment by this impoverished country.

This report is prepared on the responsibility of the FAO Secretariat with information from official and unofficial sources. Since conditions may change rapidly, please contact Office of the Chief, ESTG, FAO, (Fax: 0039-06-5705-4495, E-Mail: GIEWS1@FAO.ORG) for further information if required.