Vazirbek Avazbekov rebuilt his house four times before government officials in Tajikistan decided to move his village from its avalanche- and flood-prone valley to Navruz, a dusty patch of desert more than 300 kilometers away.
“People were dying in these disasters – homes were being swept away,” said the slender schoolteacher, reminiscing about life in the isolated Pamir Mountains hamlet of Baghush. “So when the government offered to move us, promising houses, streets and a school, we agreed.”
Six months later, Avazbekov found himself rebuilding his house for a fifth time. “When we arrived in Navruz, there was nothing,” he said. “Not even a tree.”
In the spring of 2000, authorities moved more than 200 families from five districts in Tajikistan’s mountainous Gorno-Badakhshan region to southern Tajikistan; 56 of them ended up in Navruz. Each family was given a canvas tent and 300 somoni (about $63 at today’s exchange rate). “It wasn’t even enough to buy bricks,” said Avazbekov.
When she arrived, Natalia Chorshanbieva shared her tent with seven family members and whatever desert fauna managed to crawl under the walls. “We used to eat breakfast with snakes and scorpions,” said the 55-year-old grandmother. Now, she lives in a squat mud and plaster house, like most families in Navruz. Villagers worked together to build the houses during the first summer; roofing materials were supplied by an international NGO.
“We brought nothing, not even a plate to eat off,” said Mobegim Odinamamadova. The 56 families had piled onto two buses, “which is why we needed empty hands,” added the outspoken mother of eight. “Bedding, carpets, dishes, livestock – we left everything because we were promised we would be moving into houses in good condition, with water.”
Today, the remains of a broken aqueduct run across cracked desert toward the patch of spindly trees that surround Navruz. Over the past decade, families have slowly rebuilt the lives they left behind, acquiring new teapots and colorful carpets, as well as chickens and goats, thanks in large part to labor-migrant remittances from abroad. (More than 70 percent of Navruz’s young men are working in Russia). But remittances have not been able to resolve the community’s water woes. “We wanted to move because of disaster issues, but now we can’t even grow crops because of water issues,” said Avozbekov, the teacher. “Without water people cannot live.”
From his desk drawer, Avazbekov pulls out a dog-eared photocopy of a handwritten letter: “Dear Mr. President,” it begins. “Thank you for moving us here, there are no disaster issues. But there are bad conditions due to lack of water.” The original letter, which he sent seven years ago, asks the president to help Navruz resolve its water problems. Avazbekov says the president didn’t respond. “We also asked the hookimat [district administration] to help us resolve these issues, but got no response.”
Compared to most of its neighbors, Tajikistan is water rich. The country has so much water it is planning hydro-electricity projects like the enormous Rogun Dam. But poor infrastructure and a lack of dedicated funding mean many villages grapple with water shortages.
“In some regions it’s much worse than it is in Navruz,” said an official from the Ministry of Land Reclamation and Water Resources, who declined to provide his name. “The ministry is trying to solve these problems but lacks funds.”
The official suggested that local government bodies, or jamoats, should be responsible for projects to alleviate water shortages. But in Navruz’s case, the jamoat’s coffers are as dry as the local terrain.
“We are not able to invest money to help because our district is not rich,” said jamoat head Azizbek Odinaev. “We know about Navruz’s problems, and no one is helping.” Odinaev does not blame the government in Dushanbe. Instead, he is hoping international aid agencies will support water projects. “We need their help.”
Over the years, international organizations like the UNDP have helped drill wells in the village and spent money repairing water pumps, but patchy electricity and poor maintenance have left the pumps inoperative, and the wells contaminated, locals say.
On Navruz’s dusty main street, a young boy is pulling up buckets of swampy-smelling water from a 10-meter well. When it runs dry, frequently, villagers must get their water from the next nearest source, six kilometers away. “This water is polluted,” said 45-year-old Savsangul Yodgorova, taking buckets from the boy and pouring them into yellow plastic jugs. “Lots of our children get diseases,” said the mother of four.
Sitting in a bare room overlooking her dry garden, Chorshanbieva is nursing a sick grandchild. She too blames the water. “We always boil it,” she said. “We’ve complained to the water department, but with no results.”
Unlike most of her neighbors, Chorshanbieva wasn’t living in a disaster-prone village when she decided to leave the mountains. “We thought we’d have more land here, that’s why we agreed to move. And we do have lots of land, for tomatoes and potatoes – there’s just no water,” she told EurasiaNet.org.
Most families had dreams of moving on to a better life, said Muboraksho Shokuliev, the village imam. “Then we got here and saw there was nothing, and there’s no chance to go back, so we have to stay. Now this area is our motherland, and every day we hope and pray to God to save us.”
Like most Navruz residents, Shokuliev misses his family in the Pamirs, including his father, sisters and brothers. The majority of villagers have only been home once or twice since moving 12 years ago; the 16-hour trip by bus or shared taxi is expensive.
On her last trip, Chorshanbieva brought back a strawberry plant. “Where a person lives becomes their motherland,” she said, bending over to check on her frail transplant. It is wilted, sitting in a hollow of baked earth with just a few green leaves in a sea of dry brown. “A person always hopes to make their lives better,” she said. “But living can be difficult when there’s no water.”