January 22, 2008 / 5:00 PM / 10 years ago

Central Asia shivers through icy winter, shortages

<p>A man looks at a frozen spring at a mountainous area outside Almaty, Kazakhstan, January 22, 2008.Shamil Zhumatov</p>

DUSHANBE (Reuters) - With no heating and just three hours of electricity a day, Malokhat Atayeva is struggling to survive the coldest winter in three decades in her small town in western 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, normally above subzero, plunged to -20 degrees Celsius (-4 Fahrenheit).

"We sleep fully clothed, wrapped in blankets. 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 a region wedged between Russia, China and Iran, 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 foreign investment as the European Union and other powers seek energy deals in the region.

But the cold snap caught impoverished 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 has entered a second month.

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

WOOD AND DUNG FUEL

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 not to use her last name.

"My neighbor has complained to the city government in (the Uzbek capital) Tashkent but she was told to be patient."

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

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

"Gas heaters, electric devices, nothing can save us," said Kerim, a 40-year-old resident of the Turkmen capital Ashgabat where temperatures, usually around 0 degrees Celsius (32 Fahrenheit), dropped twenty degrees this winter.

"Yesterday electricity supply was very low, same with gas. A week ago, we had no water after waterpipes burst due to frost."

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 five million, a parliament deputy complained he was unable to conduct his duties because it was too cold in the chamber, local media reported.

"We can all get ill," he said, according to the 24.kg news agency. The parliament speaker replied: "It'll get warmer soon." (Writing by Maria Golovnina; Editing by Ibon Villelabeitia) (Additional reporting by Roman Kozhevnikov in Dushanbe; Maria Gordeyeva in Almaty; Marat Gurt in Ashgabat; Shamil Baigin in Tashkent, Olga Dzyubenko in Bishkek)

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