When lightning strikes

Read how people in the Tajik village of Veshist cope with the floods that strike them every year.

By Line Højland, Communcations Officer, July 3 2017 

The sun was shining. There were rainclouds on the horizon, but they were far away, above the mountains. The families in Veshist did not sense any danger in leading their animals down to the bank of the Zerafshan River to graze, as was their custom.

But then lightning struck.

140 cows and goats died that day in May 2016. The river water had attracted the thunder clouds, and when lightning struck, the animals were killed instantaneously.

Then came the rain

Such a loss is a tough blow for a small Tajik community like Veshist that depends a lot on animals and land.

There was also a risk of an epidemic because of the many dead animals, so the villagers buried them in a hurry. But the disaster had only just begun. Lightning was followed by heavy rain.

“I woke up at three o’clock at night on the first day, because I heard the rain. I went outside and saw that the rain was heavy. My own place is in a safe location, but I was concerned about my neighbours, so I went to see them. One by one, the other villagers started calling me – my brother, my friend, my neighbour, and they all said: “We have a problem,” says local school principal Husseinboy Rahimov during an interview in his office.

Apart from educating the village children, Husseinboy is also a member of the village development committee established by Mission East in 2010. The purpose of the Mission East project was to train the villagers in disaster risk reduction, and the task of the committee is to preserve this knowledge. The 10 popularly elected committee members meet once a month to discuss how to deal with recurring disasters. Although disasters, such as lightning and heavy rainfall, cannot be avoided, much can be done to save lives and property when they do occur.

Practice saves lives

The main priority is to save human lives. Consequently, all the families in the village take part in regular drills where they practice what to do in case of heavy rainfall or earthquakes.

Husseinboy shows us an alarm device that committee members take turns to keep with them. The sound of the alarm makes families living in exposed areas aware that they should leave their homes in a hurry and seek shelter with family members. Every family keeps a bag ready with essential necessities to be able to leave quickly without wasting time finding a torch, first aid kit, food, water and their most important documents. New technology, such as internet access, makes it possible to check the weather forecast and seek shelter in time. Thanks to these precautions, no lives were lost during last year’s heavy rainfall.

Roads washed away

In May 2016, it rained for four days, and the two exit roads from the village were washed away: ”The roads were closed in both directions out of the village,” Husseinboy recalls.

Meanwhile, the authorities in the nearby town of Penjakent decided to shut off the power supply, as electricity and lots of water constitute a dangerous cocktail.

Only when the rain stopped, it became possible to start repair work on roads and ruined houses. This is where the committee’s monthly meetings become relevant:

”At the meetings, we discuss how to collect funds in the village in order to clear the road after flooding, secure the river bank or build stronger bridges. At present, we are collecting money to repair irrigation canals. People are very willing to contribute, because they depend on the canals to water their crops,” Husseinboy says.

Climate change is the culprit

Veshist has not always been plagued by heavy rainfall, and Husseinboy has no doubts about the reason for the recurring floods:

“Because of climate change, it rains a lot more than it used to. For the past ten years, there have been floods every spring,” he says.

This year is no exception: The night before 16 April, it rained so much that tons of big rocks were washed down the hillside. Another member of the disaster committee, Maysara Rajabova, shows us how powerful masses of water moved rocks down the slope from the house her family is building for her oldest son. Fortunately, no one had moved in yet, but they cannot continue construction of the new house until June when they can be certain that there will be no more heavy rainfall.

Husseinboy remains hopeful for his village: “Mission East taught us to organise ourselves. For a small investment, we can save a lot of money in the long run,” he concludes.


The work continues

The village of Veshist in northwestern Tajikistan was part of a disaster risk reduction project in 2010-2011 which was supported by the EU. Since then, Mission East – supported by the EU and the German PATRIP Foundation – has started projects in 26 villages on both sides of the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan. The projects focus on first aid training, disaster management and the establishment of village development committees like the one in Veshist.

Did you know…

… that in Soviet times, disaster risk reduction was also on the agenda in Tajikistan. Geologists examined the soil before new houses were built. But as they were external experts, local communities did not learn what to do. When the Soviet Union disintegrated, this knowledge was lost. The projects of Mission East enable the local population to act on its own, e.g. by establishing a committee like the one in Veshist.

This article was published in the Mission East magazine no. 3 2017. Read the entire magazine in Danish here.