By Roman Kozhevnikov
DUSHANBE (AlertNet) - Tajikistan's greatest commodity is perhaps the water running off its mountains but now, 18 years after the fall of the Soviet Union, shortages are creating regional tension and food supply problems.
The water crashes off the towering Pamir mountain range down to the great rivers below which flow west through Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and into the Caspian and Aral Seas.
These rivers Â? carrying water from the Pamirs in Tajikistan and the Tien Shan mountains in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan -- feed Central AsiaÂ?s people.
A series of Soviet-designed canals and dams turned the arid region between the mountains to the east and the seas to the west into a patchwork of paddy and cotton fields.
In return for water, during Soviet times mountainous Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan received food and energy.
Then, in 1991, the Soviet Union broke up.
"Since the collapse of the Soviet Union the system hasn't worked," said Giovanni Munzo, land and water officer for Central Asia at the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).
Tajikistan is poor. The United Nations ranks it at 127th out of 182 in its development index -- below Nicaragua but above Yemen.
A person born in Tajikistan has a one-in-eight chance of dying before they reach 40-years-old, U.N. statistics showed, while gross domestic produce (GDP) per person stood at $551 in 2007, lower than Ghana.
Direct humanitarian assistance provides around 20 percent of its annual food consumption, Munzo said.
"Countries like Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are struggling to feed the population," he said. "Humanitarian assistance is very important to them."
Perhaps most telling is that cash sent back by Tajik family or friends working abroad (mainly men working in Russia) equalled about 45 percent of Tajikistan's total GDP in 2007 -- by far the country with the largest dependency from this type of income.
"WATER SUPPLY WORSENING"
RussiaÂ?s building sector slowed dramatically last year during a world economic recession, forcing constructors to lay off thousands of Tajik labourers which in turn cut the cash flow back to Tajikistan.
Tajikistan, which has a population of 7 million and borders Afghanistan, can't afford to buy the energy it needs to heat itself through the winter or enough food to eat.
In Dushanbe, Mavjuna Khotirova, 31, sold potatoes at a central market.
"Water has always been a problem," she said and looked down at her hands. "I can see that every year the water supply is getting worse and worse."
Tension between the neighbouring countries in Central Asia over water supplies in the region is a constant worry to outsiders and threatens to spill over into conflict.
In winter energy supplies often dry up and the lights and heating go out in Dushanbe, the scruffy Tajik capital ringed by mountains.
In an effort to generate more energy during the winter months Tajikistan has released water through its hydro-electric dams, Munzo said. But this simply ripped up areas of the downstream waterworks because they were not ready for the sudden flow and further angered neighbours.
The end of the Soviet system not only triggered arguments over water supply but it also diverted funds away from maintaining the infrastructure.
This is a global problem, said the authors of the report Revitalising Asia's Irrigation written by the International Water Management Institute earlier this year.
"As a major wheat and cotton producer, Central Asia is critical to global agriculture," wrote the report's authors.
"Central Asia is one of the only areas in the world where agriculture groundwater is decreasing due to technical constraints."
But as water supply in Central Asia drops, demand for it rises.
The United Nations estimates the population of the Central Asian republics will grow from around 60 million now to nearly 80 million in 2050 and coupled with rising living standards will roughly double demand for water.
In September, Tajikistan's President Imomali Rakhmon made a speech in Geneva on worsening water shortages around the world.
Â?The problem is particularly acute in the Central Asia where water is not only the basis of socio-economic development, but the most important element of national and regional security,Â? he said.
(Writing and additional reporting by James Kilner in London)
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.