Crisis Looms as Bitter Cold, Blackouts Hit Tajikistan

The lights have gone out in most of Tajikistan, the poorest republic in the former Soviet Union.

The country is facing an energy crisis in the midst of the coldest winter in more than 25 years.

With millions of people left without electricity, heat or running water, aid organizations are warning of a growing humanitarian crisis.

For the past 15 days, there has been no heat, electricity or running water in the freezing maternity ward of a small country hospital in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe.

In that time, Adolat Shoreva and her small team of nurses have helped deliver 13 babies — by candlelight.

"In my 40 years as a nurse, I've never seen it this bad," Shoreva says. "I sit in the dark at night and cry."

The unusually cold winter has overwhelmed the country's aging Soviet-era infrastructure, leaving millions of people cold, in the dark, without access to clean water.

Aid workers say that even before this crisis, more than 60 percent of the population was living below the poverty line.

With many Tajiks spending what little money they have on fuel to heat their homes, the country is about to face widespread food shortages, says the United Nation's Zlatan Milisic.

"Increased food prices, previous reduced harvests, very, very cold weather, and the energy crisis have all contributed to the fact that the people are not able to cope anymore on their own," he says.

Reports of Children Dying

As the pale winter sun sets over the Tajik capital, Timur Fatholaev chops wood outside his crumbling, five-story apartment building.

He says those who can afford it have installed woodstoves to heat their apartments.

"I don't sleep at night because I'm worried about my 1-year-old daughter. I'm afraid she'll freeze ... like my neighbors' child did," he says.

Fatholaev's neighbor, a 27-year-old mother, put her 10-month-old daughter, Dilnoza, to sleep in a wooden cradle one night in January. Dilnoza was dead when her mother went to retrieve her in the morning.

There have been widespread reports in the Tajik media of children dying in the maternity wards of hospitals during prolonged power cuts. But the Tajik government insists that no one has died due to the blackouts.

International aid workers and foreign diplomats have been meeting with Tajik officials, urging them to declare a state of emergency and to make a public appeal for help.

20 Days in the Dark

Rosa Nabieva, a housewife, says she and her three children sleep on the floor of their 3-by-8-foot kitchen under the warmth of a single blanket by the feeble glow of a small flashlight.

She says the family moved into this small room to stay warm because they haven't had electricity in 20 days. Nabieva worries about her 2-year-old daughter, Shakzhoda, who recently developed sores the size of quarters on both cheeks.

Outside, it's pitch black at 7 p.m., and a crowd of villagers has gathered in the darkness. They're angry at the government.

The World Bank warns that the energy crisis could get much worse. Water levels have dropped dangerously low at the country's main hydro-electric power plant.

In central Dushanbe, however, where there are pockets of prosperity, some lucky Tajiks still enjoy 24-hour electricity.

To conserve power, the government has ordered bars and cafes to operate by candlelight.

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