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GIEWS Update-detail
FAO/GIEWS Global Watch

8 April 2008

Extreme Winter Weather in Central Asia and its Effects on Food Security

Extreme cold is not new to Central Asia. For example, the average January temperature in the highlands of Tajikistan is -20° C, and temperatures can drop as low as -60° C near the Eastern Parmirs. Normal winter temperatures range from -2° to 2° C in the more populated lowlands. However, this year’s average winter temperature was an astounding 15°C below freezing in the lowlands. The people of Uzbekistan are also accustomed to harsh winters, with winter temperatures typically ranging between 8° and 0°C in the South, and -2 to -10° C in the mountainous North. Yet this winter, the average temperature dropped to as low as 20° C below zero, making it the coldest winter in Uzbekistan in four decades. Fraught with abnormally extreme and sustained below-freezing temperatures, Central Asia’s 60 million people have been left struggling to find refuge amidst deteriorating utilities and pipelines, which sparked energy shortages this winter. This winter has highlighted the need for better preparations for future winters and unfavourable agro-meteorological fluctuations in Central Asia.

High poverty and food insecurity rates persist in Central Asia following the collapse and re-structuring of large-scale collective or state farms of the former USSR. In addition to agricultural products, these farms once provided schools, health services, housing and other social services. These responsibilities have since been transferred to local governments that do not have the financial or human resources to execute them. Poverty and food and nutritional insecurity are most dominant in rural areas as well as amongst the urban poor, who are often unemployed. In 2003, poverty rates ranged from 21 percent of the population in Kazakhstan to 70 percent in Kyrgyzstan and 74 percent in Tajikistan. Already coping with the surging prices of energy and food since the summer of 2007, Central Asia’s poverty and food insecurity have been further exacerbated by the harsh winter, particularly in impoverished Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, as well as war-torn Afghanistan.

The aftermath of war, two severe droughts (from 2001-2 and 2006), and an ongoing insurgency have increased food insecurity throughout Afghanistan. The current food shortage has been intensified by the soaring price of wheat (Afghanistan’s staple food), which rose by 70 percent in the past year. The brutally cold winter has therefore plunged Afghanistan into a humanitarian crisis.

Outside of major cities, roads have been closed due to blizzards and heavy snowfall, and people have had limited access food, medicine, clothing and other supplies. By early March, the number deaths related to cold, avalanches, and snowfall was estimated at over 1,000. Nearly half the deaths, 462, have been in the hard-hit western province of Herat, and dozens of people there have had hands or feet amputated due to frostbite.

The damage to wheat in severely affected areas is difficult to assess at this stage as most of the planted areas are still covered by snow. Early prospects for the 2008 wheat crop remain favourable, as heavy snowfall in January helped make up for below-normal precipitation at the beginning of the season. However, high world wheat prices, and the low purchasing power of most of the population, indicate that the country’s annual commercial import requirements of 550,000 tonnes of wheat are unlikely to be met. Instability in neighbouring Pakistan also makes wheat imports less accessible and more expensive.

Furthermore, Afghanistan’s livestock sector has been very seriously affected. Livestock is the basic livelihood for many of the affected households, as it provides not only a source of food but an important source of income as well. Over 300,000 animals have been killed by the extreme cold and inaccessible roads have made animal feed scarce. FAO responded in February, in collaboration with the Afghan government, to dispatch 20 metric tonnes of feed to Herat. 60 tonnes of feed concentrate were also distributed to the worst-affected farmers in Bamyan Province.

WFP seeks to distribute food to about 650,000 in and around Kabul, and thousands more in remote regions before the main midyear harvest. The food aid requirement had been forecast at 100,000 tonnes of wheat, but this figure is likely underestimated with all the ill effects of the severe winter. Violence and lawlessness in some regions has impeded efforts to deliver much needed food aid to Afghans.

Lacking the oil and gas reserves that benefit other Central Asian nations and suffering from high rates of food insecurity and poverty, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan have been amongst the hardest hit by the severe winter. Due to the unusual and sustained cold, the snow did not melt to refill Tajikistan’s reservoirs, leaving the state with inadequate levels of water to generate power. When Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan drastically curbed energy supplies to Tajikistan to cope with their own spikes in electricity usage, and due to Tajikistan's $7 million debt to Uzbekistan, thousands of residents were left to cope with severe rationing and in some cases, no electricity and heat at all in extreme cold conditions. Moreover, the water supply system froze, leaving thousands of families in the Tajik capital Dushanbe and other areas without safe drinking water.

It is estimated that damages to livestock and agriculture from the extreme weather conditions amount to $250 million in Tajikistan. Over 70 percent of the crops in the Mountainous Badakhshan Autonomous Region (MBAR) were destroyed as a result of precipitation, cold weather and natural disasters. 25 percent of the potato seeds and 10 percent of the saplings were also destroyed. So far, total losses to the state are estimated at $850 million while the country's annual budget revenues are only $585 million. Furthermore, water supplies and sewage systems had were significantly damaged over the winter, causing a serious threat to public health.

The situation is gradually improving with assistance arriving from neighbouring states to the disaster hit country and restrictions on energy supplies being partially lifted. However, UNOCHA is warning that aid is significantly under-funded. Only one-fourth of the necessary $25 million has been met.

While Kyrgyzstan’s power deficits were not as prolonged as Tajikistan’s, the extreme cold has intensified the effects of poverty, unemployment, and high food and energy prices. Since last fall, prices of wheat and flour have increased by 30 to 50 percent. Producing only 64 percent of the wheat it needs and 30 percent of the vegetable oil it demands, Kyrgyzstan is very dependent on food imports, particularly from Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan’s decision to raise the price of wheat this March may further destabilize Kyrgyzstan’s economy. Moreover, the prices of electricity and transport are forecast to continue rising.

With temperatures beginning to rise, destructive floods have been plaguing Central Asia. The Shardara Reservoir in Kazakhstan has been overflowing despite efforts to divert some of the water into canals leading into the neighbouring Kzyl-Orda Province, which is having its own difficulties with high water levels. Authorities are now estimating some 200,000 people from southern Kazakhstan will be evacuated temporarily before the water recedes. By February, early flooding in southern Kazakhstan had displaced 12,700 people and destroyed farmland, roads, bridges and schools.

In Tajikistan, snow levels in regions below 2,500 meters are nearly 20 percent more than normal. More than half a million Tajiks could soon face food shortages as warmer temperatures lead to intense rains, avalanches, mudflows, and floods. Uzbekistan and Afghanistan are is also on high alert, with flooding expected due to abnormally heavy rains and snowmelt.