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Lack of safe water a daily struggle in rural Tajikistan

© UNICEF video
From his donkey's back, a Tajik boy retrieves water from stream that runs through his village, but the water is not safe to drink.

By Peter George

In the run-up to the 20th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child – a landmark international agreement on the basic human rights of all children – UNICEF is featuring a series of stories about progress made and challenges that remain. Here is one of those stories.

DUSHANBE, Tajikistan, 10 July 2009 – It is a fine, sunny day in Dushanbe, and people are out strolling, enjoying the city’s many fountains. But the lack of potable water has become a major concern for people here, and a major source of illness for nearby residents.

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A 10-minute drive from the city centre, nurse Muharrama Ahmedova in Dara village tends to a three-month-old baby girl named Omeena who has severe diarrhoea caused by unsafe water.

“Because there’s no access to safe water here, we have diseases like diarrhoea, typhoid fever, malaria and anaemia,” says Ms. Ahmedova, who also notes that in the past year alone, she believes cholera has taken the lives of up to 70 people in the area.

Safe water only from trucks

There is a large discrepancy between residents' access to safe water in urban and rural areas. In urban areas, 93 per cent of people are using improved sources of water, as opposed to only 58 per cent in rural areas.

In the area around Dara alone, there are at least half a dozen villages where the only safe drinking water comes in tanker trucks – at a cost most people simply cannot afford. Some households rely on rainwater or take their water from the polluted stream that runs through the village.

The water situation is a major source of concern for UNICEF. The organization has supported hygiene education in hundreds of Tajik schools, raising children's awareness of the dangers of unsafe water. The aim of such efforts is to change behaviour and thereby reduce the incidence of waterborne diseases. But the problem of safe water supply remains a major challenge.

UNICEF Tajikistan Representative Hongwei Gao notes that access to safe drinking water is one of the rights included in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which marks its 20th anniversary this year.

© UNICEF video
In the area around Dara vilage alone, there are at least half a dozen villages where the only safe drinking water comes in tanker trucks.

“Safe drinking water is particularly important for children,” says Ms. Hongwei. “They need safe drinking water to grow up. Their health and their quality of education really requires safe drinking water within easy access.”

Reverse progress

Until the 1990s, the people of Dara had running water in their village, brought to them by a canal system built during the Soviet era. Now, the canals lie disused, silted and muddy. The post-Soviet government has no money to repair them or to find other means to bring water to Dara or other nearby communities.

“Until 1990, there was drinking water for four hours a day – two hours in the morning and two in the evening,” says school director Hamroqul Siddikov.

Mr. Siddikov’s pupils have to bring plastic bottles of boiled water to school, and the girls have to go home to use sanitary facilities because the school’s two wooden latrines have no doors.

Asked why the water system of Dushanbe cannot be extended the two km outside the city’s limits to his village, Mr. Siddikov replies: “The government has no money to bore for underground water.”

High price of safe water

People such as Sanovbar Saidova, a mother of four, ration the rainwater they catch in barrels. It is either that or go down to the filthy stream to collect buckets that are left to stand for as long as possible before using for all household purposes except drinking.

Says Ms. Saidova's aged father-in-law, Ahmad: “If there’s rain, then we’ve got water to drink. If there isn’t any, we have to drink muddy water.”

For the time being, those residents who have water tanks on their properties have to fork out about $12 for two weeks worth of water. But in a village where unemployment is high and wages low, that is a cost beyond the means of many families.




UNICEF’s Peter George reports on the safe-water gap in Tajikistan.
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