Aid worker diary: Building resilience in Tajikistan’s isolated east
In the remote east of Tajikistan, communities know that disaster assistance can take days to arrive.
Gorno Badakhshan Autonomous Province sits on Tajikistan’s far eastern fringe. It is isolated, sparsely populated and, like most of Tajikistan, highly prone to disasters such as flooding and mudslides. There are very few international organizations present in the area and little attention is paid to it by donors.
Vadim Nigmatov, OCHA’s National Disaster Response Adviser in Tajikistan, is working with the government to draft a country-wide disaster resilience strategy. He travelled to Gorno Badakhshan in early May to understand what resilience means for communities living there.
We drive for over twelve hours along narrow winding roads to our final destination – Khorog, the capital of Gorno Badakhshan Autonomous Province in Tajikistan. I cannot help but wonder how long it would take the country’s emergency services and the international community to reach this place in the event of a major disaster.
Khorog sits high in the Pamir Mountains, making flights by helicopter or aeroplanes unpredictable at best.
Many communities are perched high in these picturesque mountains. All the dangers we associate with life in the mountains linger over the villages of Gorno Badakhshan: seasonal floods, glacial lake outbursts, mudflows, landslides and earthquakes. Very often it can take weeks for international organizations or authorities to hear about disasters in the most remote areas. To survive, people who live here need to rely on themselves and support their neighbors.
“To thrive in such difficult circumstances communities here must know how to identify hazards and act quickly in emergencies,” explains Farrukh Lalani from Focus Humanitarian Assistance (FOCUS). Focus is the only international humanitarian group with a permanent presence in Gorno Badakhshan.
To help communities prepare for and avoid disasters, Focus has been establishing a number of Community Emergency Response Teams across the region. The teams are made up of community volunteers who are selected based on their qualifications and experience and are then organized into five groups – communications, administration and logistics, first aid, search and rescue, and firefighting. Each group is thoroughly trained.
“Before the team was set up, when something happened in my village I would take a step back and wait for others to take action,” explained Sipinyor Aliyorov, who used to run the response team in the village of Andarv. “But now I understand that each of us shares the responsibility to respond.”
Saving an entire village
The head of the village of Baroj’s emergency response team stands with me on a hill overlooking a large field. We are 3,200 metres above sea level. He tells me about how his team saved an entire village.
“Last year, this area was filled with water,” he explains, his arm pointed out across the valley. “It would have eventually broken through. If we had not taken early action, we would have seen a repeat of what happened to Dasht village.”
Dasht is one of Baroj’s neighbouring villages. In 2002, mudflows washed out the entire village, killing 24 people.
In March 2012, a local herdsman in Baroj noticed the early signs of danger – water streams were flowing down into the lake that was already filled to overflowing. The emergency response team was quickly activated and an evacuation order for the village was immediately issued. As families escaped to safety, team members under the guidance of a Focus geologist drained the lake by diverting mudflow streams around the village. A catastrophe was averted. There was no damage in Baroj and after a week, families returned to their homes.
In Tajikistan, small events can quickly build up to humanitarian crises. These types of locally-focused efforts are crucial to reduce risks and prevent crises. This is the type of action – low-cost, targeted, and high impact – that we will be promoting in our disaster resilience strategy for the whole country.