There should be plenty of water at the town of Balykchy, where property prices are booming for some. But the faces of the elderly at the local community centre look crestfallen - writes Peter Kenny.
Balykchy lies at the western tip of Lake Issyk-Kul. It has a sublimely beautiful piece of water in Central Asia that meshes with frequent banks of parched landscape to create a soft atmosphere in the summer heat. With an area of 6236 square kilometres, it is the second largest mountain lake in the world.
Kazbek Abraliev, information officer for the International NGO Training and Research Centre in Central Asia, says, "Everyone in Kyrgyzstan wants to get away from the sweltering summer heat and cool off in the lovely waters here." The surface of the lake lies at an altitude of 1606 metres, and cool breezes blow from surrounding mountains always capped with snow.
But some of the elderly Russian-speaking pensioners retired in this rail junction town that has about 45 000 inhabitants, are angry that for a third year running they cannot get water in their apartment blocks, despite having made strong efforts to do so.
Pensioners from a federation of self-help groups attached to the Resource Centre to the Elderly, which gets backing from the Ecumenical Consortium for Central Asia and other NGOs, gathered to discuss their activities early in July, and for many of them water was on their minds.
Lydmila, who says she is in her late 70s, told ENI, "This is especially a problem in summer time, and has been in recent years. We are charged for using 180 litres a day, but we don't get any water." The woman explains that such a problem would never have occurred before 1991, when Kyrgyzstan was part of the Soviet Union and local services worked.
In the days under communist rule, Soviet armed forces used Issyk-Kul to test nuclear submarines away from prying eyes in a piece of water 182 kilometres long, 60 kilometres wide, and that reaches a depth of 668 metres.
"We are using these groups of ours to lobby to get water flowing back in our apartments. It's been difficult this summer," says another elderly woman who says her name is Galina.
Most of the elderly, many of them widowed, in the self-help federation are on their own; their children have gone to work in Russia where opportunities are greater. Such was the growth in the self-help groups that they were able to united to form their federation. The Russian Orthodox Church provides the groups with spiritual backing, while European churches provide resources as part of their drive to develop civil society in Kyrgyzstan.
The pensioners realise they have to push the already hard-pressed authorities to act on their behalf, but know this is not an easy task. Also, as the elderly members grow older, they say they need new blood in their groups. Church development agencies from Britain, Denmark, the Netherlands and Norway are working to enable social mobilisation and partnership-building take place in the area, which has lacked many government facilities since the end of the Soviet era.
Sitting in an office fronted by a big statue of Russian Revolution leader Vladimir Illyich Lenin, the deputy-mayor of Balykchy, Mederrolov Taalaibek, whom many officials say actually runs the city, explains that his resource-strapped council often does not have the wherewithal to deal with residents' problems. He stresses that he works very closely with NGOs to solve the problems of vulnerable people.
Taalaibek, who has been in his position for nine years, says, "Since the collective system stopped functioning, it has been difficult for many people." He notes that one consequence is that many of the elderly are lonely. The official speaks like a bureaucrat who would like to cut out the red tape, and who is desperate for resources in his town, which lies at a strategic nexus to nearby Kazakhstan and China.
"We are trying to solve problems and listen to the self-help groups, and want to act on their concerns like the water problem. But how we can do it is not always an easy answer," says the deputy-mayor. "Sometimes I have to act like a psychologist, sometimes like a lawyer."
Still, things are getting better, and despite bureaucracy from above, the town's revenue is increasing. Its budget was 25 percent higher in 2007 than the previous year. Balykchy's economy grew by 50 percent in 2006, but it does not all trickle down the poor yet, says the deputy-mayor.
"Real estate is getting very expensive," said Taalaibek. "Five years ago, you could get a two- or three-room apartment for US$100 or $200. Now it is going to cost $5000 or $6000.
Galina Kovalenko, executive director at the Resource Centre for the Elderly in Balykchy says, "We are lucky we have a very enlightened deputy-mayor here. We have developed the self-help groups and they are forming their own federations. They know how to lobby but still need help. What we really need in more employment to break the logjam."
:: This is the second of a series looking at what some of the church-backed self-help groups in this region of central Asia are doing, and how they are affecting people's lives in an area that is both static and rapidly changing for the citizens who battle to cope there.
:: Photos to accompany this article available at: www.eni.ch/galleries/kyrgyzstan-water/
:: Other photos available at: http://www.eni.ch/galleries/centralasia/
:: DanChurchAid paid for Peter Kenny's transport and living costs during this assignment for ENI.
[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Conference of European Churches.]