A crippling shortage of energy, combined with severe weather conditions, have left many people living in cold, dark homes in Tajikistan and other parts of Central Asia. Coupled with increasing prices for food and gasoline, it's creating a miserable winter for many.
Official meetings and press conferences in Tajikistan these days reveal the extent of the problem. Freezing temperatures have forced people to wrap themselves in coats and scarves inside their offices and homes.
Temperatures in Tajikistan and elsewhere in Central Asia have dropped below -20 Celsius in some areas. Heavy snowfalls and avalanches have disrupted public transport in many cities and villages. Some bus drivers who are brave enough to go on the icy roads have been charging passengers twice the price for tickets.
At least 80 people have been stranded on a mountainous road in Tajikistan for nearly three weeks after an avalanche wiped out a section of highway linking the capital, Dushanbe, to the country's north. At least three people died in the incident, while the others -- children and women among them -- have been waiting weeks to be rescued, and help has not yet arrived.
Speaking to RFE/RL's Tajik Service via mobile phone, a woman who identifies herself as Mrs. Muhammadieva from the Panjakent district says the stranded passengers have been keeping themselves "barely alive in the middle of nowhere." Muhammadieva says they have been living in a small weather-observation station, where the lone station worker "has given all his food supplies to the trapped passengers."
"No one from the relevant authorities has offered us any help," Muhammadieva says. "[There are now] some 200 people stuck here. There are pregnant women among us. We can't go anywhere. We are grateful to this man who gave us food and shelter. No one from the government or elsewhere is providing us any assistance."
Tajik officials say "the rescue works continue and that helicopters have dropped food and other necessities" to those who are trapped in the mountains.
Households Hit Worst
The situation is difficult for other Tajiks, as well. Amid the bitter cold, the country once again faces a severe shortage of electricity and gas.
Tajikistan's potential to produce electricity is estimated at over 300 billion kilowatt-hours per year -- the greatest hydroelectric capacity in the region -- but it is dependent on its neighbors to provide electricity during the winter. The country imports electricity from Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, but it has been reduced to almost nothing due to power shortages in those two countries, a situation that emerges every year.
In many villages, people receive one or two hours of electricity a day. Even in the capital, Dushanbe, electric power is limited and residential areas have no electricity overnight. The only exceptions to the power limits are government offices, hospitals, and industries in some other "strategically important" cites, such as Tursunzoda, which has a large aluminum plant.
The centralized heating systems in Dushanbe and other cities have been almost entirely paralyzed since the early 1990s, and residents in apartment blocks have no alternative means to heat their homes in the absence of energy from the city.
Sabohat, a Dushanbe resident, says people wear several jackets and even overcoats when they go to bed. She says that when the temperature drops too low, all family members gather under one blanket to keep warm.
"You can't imagine how cold our homes are. We have small children," Sabohat says. "My youngest daughter is 8 months old, and for the past two days I haven't wanted to take her out of her cradle because our home is so very cold."
Tougher Times Ahead
The bitter cold confronts already beleaguered Tajiks with another on a long list of problems, as they are also faced with widespread unemployment and miserable wages amid increasing prices for food and gasoline.
A group of women and children in the southern town of Kurgon-teppa gathered at the office of the local government on January 9 to demand that the authorities help them solve the energy problem. The government in Dushanbe has offered no explanation for the electricity shortage, while the state-run media largely ignores the problem.
Tajik officials, however, have announced an electricity price hike of 20 percent that kicked in this month to allow the "government [to] repay its debt to the World Bank."
And there's no relief in sight.
Rashid Gulov is an official at Barqi Tojik, a national company that oversees the production and consumption of electricity. Gulov says that limits on electricity are going to be even more "strict." According to Gulov, the prices for electricity will continue to rise until 2010.
The unusually cold winter coupled with energy shortages has struck other parts of Central Asia, too.
In Uzbekistan -- and even in energy-rich Turkmenistan -- people have also faced shortages of gas and electricity.
Some in Uzbekistan say they have turned to "traditional methods" to heat their homes. There are reportedly no trees left in some Uzbek villages where people have cut them down to heat their homes and cook food. This practice has even affected the silk industry because entire plantations of mulberry trees have been destroyed in some areas. Mulberry leaves are the only source of food for silkworms.
Additionally, growing fruit is the main source of income for many villagers, and they are already predicting a smaller harvest this year because of the energy shortages and severe weather.
In some provinces in Turkmenistan, villages have been burning saxaul plants -- an ancient Turkmen way to heat homes. Saxaul, which grows in the Karakum Desert, has been listed as a rare plant at risk of extinction.
Rahim Esenov, who lives in Ashgabat, says that electricity has been cut off in some areas several times since December. "The centralized heating system is not warm because its pipes have not been repaired for years," Esenov says. "They should have been repaired during the summer or fall to get ready for cold weather. The pipes can't heat our homes, and we have to use electric heating devices, but there is no electricity so we can't use those either."
In the meantime, the weather forecast is for the freezing temperatures to continue through most of January.
RFE/RLs Tajik, Uzbek, and Turkmen services contributed to this report.