ANKARA, 20 Jan 2005 (IRIN) - Made up of an ethnic mix of Tajiks, Uzbeks and Russians, in 2004 Tajikistan experienced a further relative improvement in its overall humanitarian situation. International donor support remained strong - reaffirmed at a conference in London in February - but with a noticeable change of emphasis towards greater long-term development assistance to the mountainous nation and less on humanitarian aid.
Mirroring this trend, in May, the Humanitarian Aid Office of the European Commission (ECHO) reaffirmed its plans to scale back humanitarian activities in Tajikistan over the next three years. Since 1993, the EU has provided the republic with 153 million euros (US $182 million) worth of humanitarian aid. "At this point we are looking at phasing out our humanitarian assistance in 2007, providing the situation remains stable or improves," Cecile Pichon, ECHO head of office, told IRIN.
But huge needs remain. Poverty has driven approximately 1 million Tajiks to seek better fortunes abroad, primarily in Russia. Over 83 percent of the population live below the national poverty line. A full 17 percent of the country's 6.3 million population is considered destitute. Food insecurity - particularly in rural areas - remains a key humanitarian issue.The education and healthcare systems continue to deteriorate, worsening the prospects for current and future generations.
The UN World Food Programme (WFP) continued to assist Tajikistan under its Protected Relief and Recovery Operation (PRRO), marking a transition from humanitarian relief to recovery and development in the country. "Tajikistan is a low-income and food-deficit country needing food assistance," the WFP country director, Ardag Meghdessian, told IRIN. "The shift of emphasis from relief to recovery indeed indicates increased stability in the country, as well as an improvement of the overall humanitarian situation," he said, adding that the devastating two-year drought in 2000 and 2001 was over.
Natural disasters of varying types remained a fact of life for millions of Tajiks this year. Dushanbe announced in September that it needed more than $21 million worth of assistance to deal with the damage caused by natural disasters in 2004. "This year there have been many natural disasters in Tajikistan, especially in mountain regions, and roads, bridges and arable land have been damaged," Khilol Shamsuddinov, head of the Tajik disaster relief coordination centre, told IRIN.
In July, in one of the worst incidents, floods caused by torrential rains coupled with a landslide close to the Varzob river - a major water source for the Tajik capital - left around half of the city's 600,000 population, without water for days, government agencies told IRIN.
The huge increase in opium production in neighbouring Afghanistan this year has had a negative effect on vulnerable Tajikistan with its porous borders and poorly resourced security forces. According to Tajikistan's Drug Control Agency (DCA), the country accounts for more than 90 percent of Afghan drugs seized in Central Asia today, a fact confirmed by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
"Tajikistan is the main transit country for drugs in Central Asia," Major Avaz Yuldashov of the DCA told IRIN. After Pakistan and Iran, the mountainous state ranked third in drug seizures in 2003, capturing 9.6 mt of drugs, including 6 mt of heroin.
The social impact drug trafficking is having on the landlocked nation of seven million people is difficult to quantify. Although largely a transit country, some of the drugs remain in Tajikistan, fuelling increasing levels of crime, corruption, drug addiction and HIV/AIDS. "Drug addiction is on the rise," Azamdjon Mirzoev, director of Tajikistan's Republic Centre for AIDS Prevention and Control, told IRIN in Dushanbe, describing intravenous drug usage as the main mode of HIV transmission.
Regarding refugees, the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) told IRIN in May that since the start of the voluntary repatriation effort in spring 2002 in neighbouring Pakistan and Iran - the two largest host countries to Afghan refugees - thousands of Afghans living in Tajikistan had also returned. Since then UNHCR has also facilitated the voluntary return of over 1,000 Afghans back to their country - mainly from Dushanbe and the northern city of Khujand - with another 1,000 returning spontaneously or being resettled elsewhere.
Despite a reputation as one of the more liberal former Soviet republics in the region, the press were under attack again this year. In August, the Paris-based media freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) voiced concern over a "serious worsening" in press freedom in Tajikistan as independent and opposition newspapers were prevented from printing.
In mid-November, tax police impounded copies of the independent weekly Ruzi Nav printed abroad, Rajabi Mirzo, editor of the newspaper, told IRIN. "This has happened because our newspaper is considered to be in opposition [to the government]," he said, adding that the next issue of the paper had been suspended due to this incident.
An independent Tajik media watchdog, the only one of its kind, said in January it had registered 100 possible violations of the rights of journalists in 2003. The body also expressed concern that freedom of information was under attack.
A legacy of the civil war that ended in 1997 is the huge number of landmines still maiming and killing Tajik civilians. Although a number of minefields in the centre of the country were successfully cleared in 2004, much work remains, particularly along the borders with Uzbekistan. There are no exact figures on the extent of the landmine problem in Tajikistan, but according to the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), some 3,000 sq km - an area the size of Luxembourg - is contaminated, with the number of deaths due to mine-related accidents estimated at more than 30 per year.
Jonmakhmad Rajabov, head of the Tajik Mine Action Centre (TMAC), told IRIN that almost 340 people had fallen victim to landmine blasts in various districts of the country since 1993, of whom 175 had died and the remainder were seriously injured.
THE YEAR AHEAD
Being a land-locked country with only seven percent of arable land, and the poorest of the five former Soviet republics, Tajikistan will continue in 2005 to face a precarious post-relief, early-development situation in the throes of a difficult post-conflict peace-building process, observers note. Extreme poverty, post-drought consequences and frequent recurrence of natural disasters are all set to continue.
"Tajikistan enjoys good donor support generally and that will continue. But the country in the next few years is only likely to progress to the point where it is line with others in the region that have few natural resources to sell, like Kyrgyzstan, and things like poverty, health and education remain real challenges even there," Mehmet Erol of the Ankara-based Centre for Eurasian Strategic Studies, told IRIN.
Despite input from the international community, social indicators are unlikely to change significantly for the better, as unemployment remains at over 30 percent and the average monthly salary hardly reaches $10.50. Only half the population has access to safe water and hence waterborne diseases are likely to remain widespread in 2005.
Weak institutions and poor governance will also impact on development in 2005. Deficiencies in the legal framework and the judicial system, as well as weak public administration and an undeveloped financial sector, may well hamper the growth of an investment climate necessary for private sector development.
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