By Michael Igoe
For Nurlan Kenenov’s three-year-old daughter, the symptoms started with yellowing eyes. Then a fever set in. Fortunately, she got well on her own, but now his nephew is in the hospital, fighting hepatitis. “There were at least 20 children” there when they checked him in, Kenenov said. “Many more had been there before we arrived.”
Kenenov and the 1,000-odd residents of Djide – a hamlet perched above the Ferghana Valley in southern Kyrgyzstan – face a health threat plaguing, by some estimates, more than half their region’s rural population: lack of access to safe drinking water. For years, people in Djide got their drinking water from a dilapidated, Soviet-built canal running alongside the village. But in 2009 provincial authorities dammed the canal two kilometers upstream to create an irrigation reservoir that has turned into a bathing pool. Ever since then, say the villagers, they have been getting ill, with this year the worst so far.
No one has tested the water, according to Djide residents, so they cannot prove the illnesses are related to it. But local nurses say they often see an increase in water-borne illnesses during the summer and a EurasiaNet.org correspondent suffered from bleeding in his digestive tract after a few days in Djide. To make matters worse, some villagers are skeptical about the benefits of boiling drinking water.
Villagers are adamant that the rash of hospitalizations is due to the transformation of their only drinking water source into a “wild beach” – the Toguz Bulak (“nine springs”) reservoir, where bathers from across the region gather to seek relief from the summer heat.
“I could talk about Toguz Bulak all day and all night,” said Abdikar Doolotov, principal of Djide’s school. “After school graduations, hundreds of young people come to Toguz Bulak to celebrate. People come from Osh and Jalal-Abad. Sometimes there are hundreds of cars.”
Ironically, one of the reasons that Toguz Bulak is so popular is its reputation for curing certain ailments. The mud from around the springs is collected and shipped to health spas in Osh and other nearby towns.
But the pool serves a number of purposes: “People swim, wash their clothes, wash their carpets. Some people even drive their cars in to wash them,” said Doolotov. Whatever comes off drifts downstream to Djide.
The story of Djide is not uncommon across the region, according to the Central Asian Alliance for Water, a non-governmental organization based in Osh. In research conducted last year, CAAW found that 64 percent of the rural population of southern Kyrgyzstan lacks access to safe drinking water.
While Kyrgyzstan has ample supplies of fresh water, “the problem is that the local governments, water committees, and local populations are not aware of how to use water in an economical way,” Tinar Musabaev of CAAW told EurasiaNet.org. “The problem is about institutional professionalism.”
According to CAAW’s figures, 89 percent of the local government institutions that control the water supplies in southern Kyrgyzstan are not operating in coordination with one another. So in small villages like Djide – where brucellosis, intestinal infections, and hepatitis-A are common – public health falls through the cracks.
Complicating efforts to clean up Toguz Bulak, the reservoir has become an important source of income for some families upstream from Djide.
Kairinsa Eshenalieva runs a small restaurant catering to visitors on the reservoir’s grassy banks. She and her family were drawn to the spot several years ago and erected a felt yurt to spend weekends near the water. Then visitors “told us we should cook meals for them as a business,” Eshenalieva said. Now her yurt has the feel of a beachside bar, with speakers playing the latest pop hits. “We charge about 200 som [about $4] for a meal. I have six children. This is how I can make money for them.”
Eshenalieva is not the only one to benefit from the sudden popularity of this formerly unremarkable canal. Other yurts have popped up along the bank. And, according to Eshenalieva, each pays 1,000 som (about $20) per month to the local government council, or ayil okmotu, and 500 som per month to the forest service for the right to collect firewood.
Those fees, says Doolotov, the school principal, create little incentive for local authorities to clean up Toguz Bulak. He has tried raising the issue with officials, but their response is tepid: “They put up some signs about drinking water, but people destroyed them.” Doolotov thinks that if officials refuse to close off the area to swimmers, they should install a pipe to divert water, bypassing the reservoir, to Djide.
The deputy head of the ayil okmotu, Abdubaley Ardinov, told EurasiaNet.org that drinking water management responsibilities lie with a specially designated village-level committee. Committee members were not immediately available for comment, but Musabaev of CAAW said village budgets are rarely able to cover repairs, let alone capital investments. Most local authorities, he said, turn to foreign donors for help with such projects, but villages like Djide are so small they rarely get donor attention.
Without the cash to build a pipeline, it seems, few, except the sick villagers, see any reason to upset the status quo. “Why can’t we swim in our own rivers?” said Eshenalieva.
Michael Igoe is a freelance reporter specializing in environmental issues in Central Asia.