Welcome relief comes to Rasht
Published on 5 January 2011

Aygul Nishanbaeva (right) and her family with the fortified wheat flour from WFP.
Photo credit: WFP/Muzaffar Nodirov

It’s going to be a hard, cold winter in the Rasht Valley as the people living in this isolated region of Tajikistan take stock of their meager food supplies. Here, more than elsewhere in this Central Asian country, one blow after another has hammered at the fragile food security of households reliant on small-scale farming and household garden plots in order to eat

Aygul Nishanbaeva knows this only too well. Like the majority of Rasht residents, Aygul grows potatoes to feed her household and to sell for a little cash. This year, her patch of land in Liyakhsh village produced half of what she normally harvests. After setting aside a good portion of her crop for seeds for next year’s planting season, she was left with enough potatoes – the people’s “second bread” – to last only until January.

Aygul, a widow and mother of four children, brings in US$19 a month as a school cleaner. On that, she supports three school-age daughters and a mentally handicapped nine-year-old son. It is almost impossible to do so this winter, with rising food prices cutting into that slender income.
Aygul’s poverty is what qualified her to receive a two-month ration of wheat flour, vegetable oil, pulses and salt from WFP in early December. This was the first time she got help from WFP and the tears in her eyes attest to its significance. “My children and I are really happy to get this,” she said as a village boy helped her load the bags of food onto a handcart to be pushed back to her home.

Aygul was among 74,000 people who got food under the Vulnerable Group Feeding Programme, more than half of them in the Rasht Valley. Collecting food also for the first time was Diana Shavel, a 60-year-old widow who makes $50 a month as a Russian language teacher. A good part of that salary goes to paying the tuition fees and lodging of her daughter, who is completing her language training in Dushanbe. As one of the last ethnic Russians in the region, Diana, a civil war widow, has no safety net, no extended family to support her in her old age. But thanks to WFP, she can see her way through to the end of winter. diana receiving a bucket of food      

The Rasht Valley is on the verge of a food crisis. The latest WFP food security study of the country, based on data collected in November, shows the region vulnerable to a “moderate risk of humanitarian catastrophe”. The problems began in August when a prison outbreak by opposition fighters triggered as serial violence in Rasht between government forces and “commanders” from eastern Tajikistan and possibly Afghanistan. Security forces closed the region for several months, and people were unable to go to their farm land. Market traders from Dushanbe were fewer in number and had less food to sell at higher prices. Internet, cell phone and landline communications were cut, which meant labour migrants in Russia couldn’t convey bank codes for remittance income to their families. 
In November, the potato harvest failed. The seeds imported from Russia in the spring had spoiled in sun-baked rail wagons during a month-long rail blockade by neighbouring Uzbekistan. Families who normally harvested at least 500 kg of potatoes were looking at no more than 150 kg.

“Each of these factors in and of themselves could have been surmounted,” said Deputy Country Director Heather Hill. “But taken all together, they create a degree of extreme hardship that calls out for humanitarian assistance. That is what we are doing now.”