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A Country Made and Unmade by Water

October 22, 2000|Paula R. Newberg | Paula R. Newberg is a consultant in countries encountering conflict and economic dislocation. She spent autumn in Central Asia

TASHKENT, UZBEKISTAN — The gods played havoc with rain last summer. The Mekong River in Vietnam and the Ganges River in eastern India overflowed their embankments after late monsoon storms, displacing millions of people. But in Central Asia, where no rain has fallen and the renowned Amu Darya River runs dry, the absence of water is more than a cruel trick of nature. It is also a sharp reminder that public policy, not fate, will make the difference between progress and decline in the region's struggling states.

The parched fields of southern Tajikistan tell grim tales. Stumps of stalks dot a landscape that should yield cotton and wheat; harvest-season markets are almost empty. No summer rain, no autumn crops--and no seeds for planting, no drinking water, hydroelectric power or export earnings. Tiny Tajikistan, tucked in an almost inaccessible corner of the high Pamir Mountain range, is tied tightly to a trading market that survives by squeezing the most out of bits of arable land. Its small economy joins modern cash and old-fashioned barter and is easily buffeted by even temporary reverses. This summer's crisis shares the follies of nature with the folly of men.

Tajikistan is a place defined by water: Its rivers nurtured antique cultures and Soviet dams; its poets still recite Persian couplets to the sound of waterfalls and urban fountains. Water made it what it was, and now, what it is not. The Soviet Union's overseers created economies of scale through divisions of labor, and for Tajiks, that meant an economy based on water and an irrigation system organized around cotton exports. Tajikistan supplemented Uzbekistan's enormous cotton crop and received natural gas and significant subsidies in return.

Independent Tajikistan continues this practice. Cotton production and export are strictly controlled by the government, which sells cotton futures by setting quotas for its farmers. It can do this because, the lures of capitalism notwithstanding, most land is owned by the state. In today's shaky, semi-market economy, the state gives civil servants, including doctors and teachers, small plots of land to substitute for missing salaries; health, education and everything else depends on the produce from tired lands. But this social safety net is based on a scarce resource, and this year, it is an unreliable one. President Imamali Rahmanov has made state land ownership a constitutional precept and an economic myth, but even he can't control the rain.

Shedding the skin of the old Soviet Union is not easy, and acquiring a new shell is harder still. The grand stories that drove Soviet policies--collectivism, egalitarianism and accelerated millenarianism--don't work in today's Central Asia. Tajiks have deliberately forsaken 20th-century fables for the romance of the ancient Samanid dynasty, associating their contemporary state with a 1200-year-old empire of startling cultural proportions. But Samanid archeology now lies elsewhere: in bustling Mashad in eastern Iran; in Herat, an emblem of Afghanistan's destruction; and in Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva, which sit, almost tauntingly, on the Uzbek side of a rarely trespassed border.

National boundaries hold heavy burdens for the little states of Central Asia, which seek economies to suit their needs and political systems to propel their ambitions. Tajikistan's nine years of independence have witnessed civil war, unanticipated deprivation and increasingly high barriers to the territories of neighboring republics. Tajiks have watched narcotics and gunrunners and frustrated opposition fighters fan out across the entire region, using mountain passes as transit routes for a new century's nascent politics. Among these contradictory forces, the government of Tajikistan has tried to write a script for a country that cannot survive without its neighbors but is hard-pressed to live with them.

Every myth carries a message. When the government of Tajikistan argues that its country is simply a path for other people's problems, it is pleading to be absolved of responsibility for future regional instability. When it proclaims that its own civil war was the result of disparities among its regions, it is asking for external assistance to close the gap and overlooking the political causes of continuing restiveness. When it insists that arable land is the sole province of the state, it is refusing to share power with its people or relinquish control to them.

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