Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Food Shortages in Central Asia Seen Sparking Violence, Outmigration

Paul Goble

Vienna, July 2 – Increasingly serious food shortages in Central Asia, the results of burgeoning populations, declining water supplies, and falling production of food in these four countries, threaten to spark a new wave of violence within and among these states and to prompt even more outmigration to the Russian Federation.
All these phenomena were in evidence in the final years of Soviet power, Moscow commentator Aleksandr Shustov argues in an article posted online yesterday, but each of them has become worse in the period since that time and the people there now face what can only be called “an extremely serious” crisis for all (
All four of the Central Asian countries are in trouble in this regard, Shustov said with the two poorest, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan facing immediate threats. At present, he reported, 500,000 Tajiks are subsisting on fewer than 2100 calories a day, with many others not much above that minimal figure.
Because the production of food is falling because of shortages of land and water and because prices are rising given increases in population, many people in these countries can no longer afford to buy even the most basic foods. Since August of last year, for example, the price of basic foods in Kyrgyzstan has risen “two to three times.”
On the one hand, that means people are cutting back on more expensive items like meats, fruits and vegetables, a change in diet that entails serious health consequences for the society. And on the other, many are deciding either to return to rural areas where they may be able to grow food or to move to Russia where they hope to find work as gastarbeiters.
At the present time, Shustov concluded, “the food supply crisis is touching an ever larger part of the population of the [entire] Central Asian region, negatively affecting the health of at least a third of that area’s population – 20 million people, according to the United Nations -- and keeping 40 percent – 25 million people – below the poverty line.
Any shock, like a drought or another anomalously cold winter like the one last year could, the Moscow observer said, “leave a significant part of the indigenous population of the Central Asian region at the edge of survival,” with catastrophic consequences for the Russian Federation and the CIS as a whole and the countries of that region in particular.
For his part, Shustov said that “the flood of forced migrants with which Russian would have to encounter in that case would significantly exceed all previous indicators of labor migration from the southern republics of the CIS,” triggering more social problems and ethnic tensions in Russian cities.
But there is an even greater risk that this degradation of social conditions could pose for the countries of Central Asia. According to Bolat Nurgaliyev, the general secretary of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), water deficits and the resulting food shortages could trigger the rise of “terrorism and separatism” there (
The growth of these phenomena in turn could affect both adjoining countries like Afghanistan and others like the European countries and the United States further away. And this means that Russia, which this year is enjoying a bumper crop of grain, may provide some of it to Central Asia (
Indeed, in a Central Asia running out of water and food, Moscow could find that grain and other food products may be a more effective tool to advance its interests than even the oil and gas weapons it has deployed elsewhere, a possibility that few countries appear to have recognized.

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