A majority of the population of Central Asian countries is in danger of being struck by AIDS, a commentary broadcast by Uzbek radio said this week. It said various forms of venereal diseases and AIDS were on the rise in the region. Meanwhile, foreign experts believe that the number of AIDS patients in the region could be 10 times greater than official figures showed.
In Kazakhstan, which has officially the highest number of AIDS cases in Central Asia, there are 2,256 AIDS patients. Uzbekistan has 779 and in Kyrgyzstan 208 cases of AIDS. In neighbouring Tajikistan there are only 45 AIDS cases and in Turkmenistan only four.
According to the radio report, the increase in the number of sexually transmitted diseases including AIDS may rise due to the spread of prostitution.
In Kazakhstan, staff at the regional AIDS centre registered 14 HIV cases in April. This is the biggest monthly figure this year so far. Nine cases were registered in January and 12 in February.
Another concern for the health authorities is increase in the number of drug users, who by sharing needles, become vulnerable to the spread of serious diseases, including HIV/AIDS.
Central Asia is not only emerging as a favoured narcotics transit route but is also home to a growing number of drug users, as illustrated by a seven-fold increase in the number of heroin addicts in Tajikistan over the past seven years. The number of registered drug users there has climbed to 6,243 in 2001 from 823 in 1995.
Kyrgyzstan has more than 5,000 registered drug users, with 68 percent taking opium and heroin, Uzbekistan more than 2,000, with an alarming rise in the use of heroin.
Sue Simon, Associate Director of the Open Society Institute's International Harm Reduction Development Programme, said rising addiction in the region could be a harbinger of a wider public health crisis, involving the spread of HIV/AIDS, hepatitis and other infectious diseases. "While it is hard to make sweeping generalisations about a region as a diverse as Central Asia, we have seen the replication of precarious trends throughout the republics of Central Asia," Simon was quoted as saying by Eurasia Net.
Being in one of the poorest regions of the world, Central Asian countries, face another threat, viewed by some experts as far graver than HIV/AIDS, which is the acute shortage of water resources.
A regular sitting of the Inter-State Water Management Coordination Commission, comprising Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, was held in Bukhara to discuss the regional water issue. The two-day meeting discussed effective use of resources of the Amudarya and Syrdarya rivers, inter-state water reservoirs for the needs of national economies of the Central Asia countries, and how to combat water shortages.
Several of these countries are hoping to source water from outside the region, though so far efforts have not produced any tangible result.
Russia is not expected to approve an Uzbek plan to divert water from Siberia to the cotton fields of the Central Asian state, where drought and a population surge threaten the entire region with catastrophe. Uzbek experts had floated a proposal at a recent Aral Sea forum in Tashkent to resurrect a Soviet plan from the 1980s to divert part of the river flow of the Ob and Irtysh to parched areas of the region.
Tashkent's water shortage worsens each year, owing to a combination of drought, population growth and the predominance of the cotton industry. The World Bank estimates that the sector employs 40 percent of the Uzbek workforce and consumes 90 percent of the nation's water supply.
While Uzbek authorities maintain the solution rests in gaining water from outside the region, experts maintain that unless resolved, water issue can cause military conflicts in Central Asian countries, some of which are already contesting the share of resources in the resource-rich Caspian Sea.
The Caspian is believed to have the world's third-largest petroleum reserves after the Persian Gulf and Siberia. It has also the prized Caspian Sea caviar. But the benefits of the sea are clouded by pollution and the damage to its ecology.
NATO this week offered to help the five Caspian Sea states - Russia, Iran, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan - in resolving their ecological problems. Jean Fournet, NATO's deputy general secretary for science and environment, made the offer of help at a two-day conference in Azerbaijan.
Illegal poaching and pollution is threatening sturgeon in the Caspian Sea, while police are powerless to curb the culprits.
However, Tehran, in a bold attempt to boost its production of Caspian Sea caviar, has shipped some 100 young sturgeon to a sprawling farm in the middle of Yazd desert in Yazd Province in central Iran.
"For now, all this is a big experiment to see if the fish can mature and adapt to our region," the French news agency, AFP, quoted Ahmad Meimani, the head of the regional office of the National Fishing Association, as saying. "If the programme works, we will be able to produce caviar in the long term," he said, noting that the fish have become endangered in the Caspian Sea due to over fishing and by pollution.
If all goes well, the caviar programme will fetch more than US $315 for a seven ounce (200 gramme) tin for Tehran.
Also in Tehran, a hardline court sentenced a senior reformist member of parliament to six months in jail and suspended the newspaper he manages for breaching Iran's press laws.
Mohsen Mirdamadi, the head of the parliamentary foreign policy commission and publisher of reformist daily Nowruz (New Day), was banned by the court from journalistic activities for a period of four years. Another Iranian court slapped bail of three billion rials (US $375,000) on the leader of the outlawed Iran Freedom Movement, Ebrahim Yazdi. Yazdi's case is ongoing and he has yet to be detained.
As in Iran, high-profile cases against political opponents and former officials are continuing in the Central Asian countries.
This week in Kyrgyzstan, an opposition leader was sentenced to 10 years in prison on charges of embezzlement, which his supporters say is an attempt to silence a rival of president Askar Akayev. Felix Kulov was given the 10-year term in a high-security prison for abuse of power and embezzlement.
In neighbouring Turkmenistan, the former security chief, Muhammad Nazarov, ex-Defence Minister Kurbandurdy Begendzhev and 20 other security officials have been charged with various crimes, including, murder, torture, drug smuggling and large-scale corruption. The cases will be sent straight to the Supreme Court.
Similarly, in Tajikistan, 82 members of a former armed Islamic opposition group went on trial on charges including murder and terrorism. The trial, which is set to last several months in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, involves members of an Islamist group led by Rakhman Sanguinov and Mansur Muakalov, both of whom were killed by security forces during an operation to capture them. All the defendants were arrested during the summer of 2001.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions