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Up Front

Natural Disasters in Central Asia: Thousands Yearly but Little Response Capacity

Elizabeth Ferris

Editor’s Note: This is a shortened version of Elizabeth Ferris’ report on her trip to Kyrgyzstan. Read the full report here.

I’d never been to Central Asia before and so when we planned a workshop in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, I looked forward to learning about disasters occurring in this part of the world. Organized in collaboration with the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance, the workshop focused on protection in natural disasters for representatives of governments, UN agencies, Red Cross/Red Crescent national societies and civil society organizations from seven countries in Central Asia and the Caucasus.

Disasters are common in this region and governmental capacity to respond to – and especially to prepare for – disasters varies a lot within the region but is in most cases limited. Tajikistan, for example has around 9,000 earthquakes a year – most of which are small but the possibility of a major earthquake in the future is a frightening one. A report by my colleague, Johannes Linn outlined both the risks of earthquakes in this region and the inadequate government capacity to prepare for it. As he wrote two years ago, “the bottom line is that there has been little progress in this critical area [preparedness and response capacity] since the collapse of the Soviet Union 20 years ago, and the risk of a major disaster possibly on the scale of Haiti, is a real threat…If anything, the ability of Central Asian countries to respond to a major disaster today is less than in Soviet days.” Earthquakes can occur, of course, in both rural and urban areas but there is particular fear of a major earthquake striking an urban area, where populations are concentrated and where it’s not clear how many structures are designed to be earthquake-resistant. I was glad to see the active role being played by UN agencies in carrying out contingency planning throughout the region.

In addition to the dangers from earthquakes, the region regularly experiences river flooding and landslides and there is growing concern that climate change will lead to increased flooding from glacier mountain lakes. There are thousands of lakes in Central Asia and as glaciers recede, more lakes are likely to be formed, dramatically increasing the risk of what are called glacier lake outburst floods. Disasters have transborder dimensions. For example, landslides from Kyrgyzstan’s Fergana Valley could affect Uzbekistan as well – a source of particular concern given that there are a significant number of uranium tailings in the Fergana Valley, a legacy from the Soviet times. Many of these sites are undoubtedly degraded. I’d never thought about the possibility of ‘radioactive landslides’ before wish I knew more about the science of it.

Although the workshop focused on natural disasters, everyone was conscious of the June 2010 violence in southern Kyrgyzstan in which mobs had burned largely Uzbek homes, killing some 400 people (according to official figures) and destroying more than 2,000 homes. Some 400,000 people were displaced, including over 100,000 who crossed the border as refugees into Uzbekistan. On one level, the crisis was over quickly. Within weeks, the refugees and most of the IDPs had returned and over the past two years, many of the destroyed houses have been rebuilt. In comparison with many other situations where displacement drags on for years, this was positive indeed.

But although the situation is presently calm, people admitted that there is still tension and the possibility of another violent outbreak couldn’t be ruled out. This is reinforced by disturbing reports of discrimination and harassment of the region’s ethnic minority, the Uzbeks. As happens in most major emergencies, there was an influx of international organizations following the violence, but most have since left. And yet the continued presence of international organizations, such as UNHCR and UNICEF, in Osh may serve as an effective prevention measure for further violence.

Usually when I think of natural disasters and displacement, the cases that come immediately to mind are the Haitian earthquake, the Japanese earthquake/tsunami, and the massive flooding in Pakistan and Colombia. But this workshop in Bishkek reminded me that many countries which rarely feature in Washington DC headlines are also vulnerable to disasters. Perhaps because they aren’t regularly on the international radar screen is precisely the reason that practitioners and academics alike need to pay more attention to them.