Winter Hits Hard This Year in Central Asia

ReutersPeople cooking in a yard outside their home in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, on Tuesday as they endure the harsh winter.
DUSHANBE, Tajikistan -- With no heating and three hours of electricity per day, Malokhat Atayeva is struggling to survive the coldest winter in three decades in her small town in Tajikistan.

"It's so cold that water turns into ice in the kettle overnight," Atayeva, a mother of two, said by telephone from Tursunzade as temperatures outside plunged to minus 20 degrees Celsius.

"We sleep fully clothed, wrapped in blankets," Atayeva said. "Children stopped going to school because it's too cold in the classroom."

Like Atayeva, millions of people across energy-rich Central Asia are scrambling to find refuge from one of the harshest winters in living memory.

Extreme cold is no surprise to the 60 million people scattered across the region, but this year's winter has exposed the poor state of crumbling Soviet-era utilities and pipelines and sparked energy shortages.

Lying on some of the world's biggest energy reserves, Central Asia has attracted billions of dollars of investment as the European Union and other powers seek energy deals in the region.

But the cold snap caught Tajikistan off guard, forcing the government to resort to daily rations of electricity and gas. Central heating has all but stopped working across Tajikistan, its utilities ruined by a 1990s civil war.

Governments across Central Asia have pledged to carry out urgent repairs and build new electricity generators. But there were no signs of relief as the severe weather entered a second month.

In Uzbekistan, temperatures fell to lows not seen since the 1920s, when it became part of the Soviet Union.

Despite official reports that the government was ready for the onset of winter, people outside the Uzbek capital Tashkent resorted to heating methods such as wood or dung fuel.

"In a nearby house people had no electricity for four days and used fire to prepare food," said Galina, a pensioner from the Uzbek city of Angren, who asked that her last name not be used.

The cold snap took a political undertone this month when Uzbekistan cut gas supplies to Kazakhstan because of higher domestic consumption caused by the cold spell.

In Turkmenistan, a gas-rich desert nation bordering Iran, the coldest snap in 40 years froze parts of the Caspian coast, disrupting local shipments, and rising ice levels ruined a bridge over the Amu Darya River.

In Kazakhstan, a nation the size of Western Europe, schools near the financial capital, Almaty, were shut until warmer times.

In Kyrgyzstan, an impoverished nation of 5 million, a parliament deputy complained that he was unable to conduct his duties because it was too cold in the chamber, local media reported.