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Afghan neighbours also crying out for aid
By Tara FitzGerald

TASHKENT, Dec 2 (Reuters) - The suffering of Afghanistan has been thrust into global consciousness because the U.S.-led military campaign there ensures it has been beamed onto television screens all over the world.

But some of Afghanistan's lesser-known Central Asian neighbours face a similar humanitarian disaster -- if not a bombing campaign -- and are in danger of being forgotten.

Afghan neighbours Uzbekistan and Tajikistan are in the grip of the same drought as the war-torn state to their south. Millions are threatened with starvation in the approaching bitter winter.

Ironically, both former Soviet states have become major supply routes for humanitarian agencies to shift aid into Afghanistan. Geno Teofilo, an information delegate for the American Red Cross visiting the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, said it was always difficult for nearby states when there was a focus elsewhere.

"There are definitely needs in these bordering countries as well...it's one of the difficulties of doing this type of work," he said.

"But I would say the needs in Afghanistan are probably even greater right now."

Rudy Rodrigues, head of the U.N. children's fund UNICEF in Uzbekistan, said the danger of donors forgetting surrounding countries was something he was always very conscious of.


"When meeting donors I always underline the fact that we cannot be seen to be ignoring the plight of the most vulnerable in Uzbekistan because of what is going on in Afghanistan," he said.

United Nations agencies called in July for prompt assistance for Uzbekistan's northwestern Khorezm and Karakalpakstan regions, where up to 600,000 people are short of food and uncontaminated water. They said it was vital to avert disease and the mass flight of hungry people.

In neighbouring Tajikistan, the U.N. World Food Programme (WFP) estimates that around one million people out of a total population of 6.3 million are facing serious food shortages.

"This means that roughly the same proportion of people are facing food shortages in Tajikistan as are in Afghanistan," Ardag Meghdessian, the WFP's Tajikistan Country Director, told Reuters from the Tajik capital Dushanbe.

And it is likely to get worse as the winter looms.

The WFP says Tajikistan, which was torn by civil war from 1992 to 1997, suffers from a lack of investment in or maintenance of its vital irrigation system and inadequate rain in farming areas. All this is compounded by the drought.

Meghdessian said the WFP estimates that cereal production in Tajikistan is down 36 percent this year compared to the average over the last five years.

He said those who were hardest hit were people who depend on rain-fed agriculture and live in mountainous areas.

Uzbekistan, which has a population of 25 million, is watered by Central Asia's two great rivers -- the Syr Darya and Amu Darya -- which are swelled by snow melting in the mountains of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.

But so much water is sucked from the rivers for irrigation as they flow west that virtually nothing is left for the western regions, and in some years no water at all reaches the river's final destination -- the dying Aral Sea.

Aid agencies say most water in the area is highly saline, killing vegetation and causing stunted growth and damage to internal organs in people as well as animals.

"It is tragic in the northernmost villages (of Uzbekistan), as a lot of the men have left to find work in Kazakhstan," UNICEF's Rodrigues said. "They have left the women and children and some have been gone for years and not remitted any money."

"The women have been breaking up their traditional homes and selling off the roof tiles for money, and the kids are left to fend for themselves on the streets," he added.


But aid agencies say there is light at the end of the tunnel.

As the crisis in Afghanistan started to take shape, international media and aid agencies flocked to the region, often setting up camp in Central Asian states while waiting to cross the border.

"At the beginning I was very worried because the worst-case scenario was that the crisis in Afghanistan would overshadow problems in Tajikistan," Meghdessian said.

"But in the end the presence of the international media in Dushanbe has paid off...I think Tajikistan is very much back on the map."

UNICEF's Rodrigues said the focus on Afghanistan's plight was actually forcing donors to look at neighbouring states because of the need for supply routes.

"People are being forced to meet with governments there and it is bringing senior interest to the region, so it can be a positive thing as well."

WFP's Meghdessian said he had already seen the first concrete result of this attention in the form of "a sizeable donation" of 35,000 tonnes of wheat flour for Tajikistan from Washington's USAID overseas aid agency.

"We took advantage of the fact that so many of the world's media were here (in Dushanbe) to get our message out," he said.

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