On the frontlines of climate change: Tajikstan

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Sainam Ganieva, a young mother of four living in the dusty hills of Temurmalik in rural Tajikistan, has contributed very little to global green house gas emissions.  Yet her country’s glaciers are in retreat (threatening the availability of precious water), and she has seen repeated dry periods and drought sweep across Tajikistan’s agricultural lands.

Yet, as I spoke with Sainam on the barren plot next to her house that once sprouted wheat, it became clear that the emergence of extreme weather patterns like drought in recent years had turned her already dire situation into a desperate one.

Bearing the brunt of climate change

Tajikistan currently ranks 109th in the world for all greenhouse gas emissions and 129th in emissions per capita. Its people emit less than one ton of carbon dioxide per head per year as compared to nearly 20 tons by North Americans. But it is people in the developing world like Sainam, who are bearing the brunt of the impacts of climate change.

“A few years ago I could at least cultivate a small amount of wheat, so I had something.  It was just enough for my family, but at least it was something, “ Sainam explains.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the projected decrease in mean precipitation in Central Asia will be accompanied by an increase in the frequency of very dry spring, summer and autumn seasons, and changes in the amount of water flows from rivers systems are likely to occur. That could spell more extremely difficult years ahead for poor farmers here in southern Tajikistan, who are already struggling to support their families.

Adapting to climate change

In this inhospitable landscape, Oxfam is helping poor farmers in the region to adapt by providing new varieties of seeds and building greenhouses and water cisterns. Nearly one and a half million people are already food insecure here, and they are extremely vulnerable to added shocks like drought, flooding or bitterly cold winters that freeze crops. The number of those facing such hardship is likely to rise sharply without swift action to mitigate and adapt to the effects of climate change.

The symptoms have been sharply felt in the rural parts of the country where some 70 percent of the population lives:

  • Twenty percent of the country’s glaciers have already retreated;
  • up to 30 percent more are likely to retreat or disappear by 2050 in its majestic Pamir Mountains, and
  • droughts are expected to increase in frequency.

Reacing the tipping point?

Oxfam's new report, Reaching Tipping Point? Climate Change and Poverty in Tajikistan, highlights this data and more. Much of the report was based on interviews conducted in rural areas, including Sainam’s Temurmalik district.

Like many other people in rural Tajikistan, Sainam’s sustenance and that of her children depends on the rain. And in recent years the skies above Tajikistan have proved temperamental and unreliable. Three years of consecutive drought culminated in 2008, leaving her almost completely dependent on charitable handouts.

Sainam only owns a very small plot of land, like most rural farmers, but hers is particularly small and inhospitable. It resembled sandstone in the autumn of 2008 when I visited her. She showed me an old wooden well in front of her dried out mud home, but the pail only contained chalky dirt when she drew it up for me to observe. She must walk eight kilometers to fetch water.

Rural population hit hardest

Beyond the sun-bleached hills of Temurmalik lie verdant, irrigated cotton fields that spread out across this southern part of Tajikistan, known under Soviet times – and subsidies – as the ‘bread basket’ of the country. While cotton is a significant source of hard currency today, the rural population does not benefit much beyond a small amount of money earned as laborers during the cotton picking season.

Sainum lives too far away from the cotton fields to earn a few Somonis to help feed her family or buy window glass for the bitter winters. Things were better before the droughts began and before her husband died in a fire six years ago in Russia, where hundreds of thousands of Tajik men migrate each year to work as laborers. Not only did she tragically lose her husband, and her children their father, but the whole family also lost their only source of income in a region blighted by lack of viable employment opportunity and widespread poverty.

Sainum told me when we spoke on that October day in 2008, that a 50 kilogram sack of wheat, which would keep her family in bread for a few weeks, cost around 115 Somonis, about $35. The only money she had to live on was a $15 monthly widow’s pension.

“Now I have this much flour left,” she said, raising her hand a few inches above the dirt floor of her home. “I ration each day the amount I can give my children.  But even then, all we have is poor quality bread. We don’t eat meat or even vegetables or fruit…I don’t remember the last time we ate anything but bread….I am all alone here. All alone.”

While Sainam has faced particularly trying circumstances, many poor farmers I met also said they had very little else during meals except bread, tea and the occasional fruit or vegetable. It is clear that if climate change takes further root, as is expected in the coming decades without ambitious adaptation and mitigation efforts, Sainam may no longer be alone in her desperate predicament.

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