Moldova: a 21st century European story of drought and poverty

Publié: 4 mars 2008 0:00 CET

Joe Lowry, Federation Country Representative for Belarus, Moldova and Ukraine

Officials in the tiny republic of Moldova are warning of another serious drought - the fourth in five years - as the Moldova Red Cross, with support from the International Federation, prepares to distribute food parcels to 6,700 families badly affected by the 2007 drought. The drought, coupled with endemic poverty, created food shortages in the tiny former Soviet state which now borders the European Union (EU).

Temperatures last summer hit an incredible 70 degrees Celsius in the direct glare of the sun. Moldova's famous grapes "fried on the vine" according to one local farmer. All over the country the fields dried up, and farmers slaughtered their cattle for cash, compounding an already serious situation. The country, still reeling from the collapse of the Soviet Union and the effects of the breakaway Transnistria region, is withering.

Although the capital, Chisinau, is barely an hour's drive from the EU border with Romania it feels stuck in a time warp. Buildings and roads are crumbling, and the impoverished vast majority try to survive any way they can. For many, that means leaving their homeland. Up to a quarter of Moldova's population of four million now lives outside its borders, and villages are full of children who have forgotten what their parents look like.

Thousands of women have been driven to the last resort, emigrating to sell the last thing of value they possess - their bodies. While some might return, or at least send home money, as many gradually fade out of sight, out of mind. The poverty, up close and personal, is stark. In the southern region of Gagauzia, where the people speak a Turkic language and, in better times, celebrate with their robust local wine, everything seems to be ebbing away - the young people, hope, even the colour of the land.

Stepan Tatar, mayor of Congazchick, a village home to 2,080 souls says he has a monthly fund of 2,200 lei (about 200 USD) for emergency medical assistance. He has to spread it between 20 applicants a month, most of whom have a pension amounting to a little under a dollar a day.

He takes us to see a typical family. From outside, the house is a little ragged, a couple of ducks run through the yard, a rangy dog struggles against a chain. Inside, Feodora Zachariah, a 64-year-old invalid sits by the stove fuelled by vine roots (the gas has long since been cut off). She, her husband Mikhael and a brother are bringing up two girls and a boy, aged between 15 and eight. The household income is about 80 USD a month.

"Our daughter left three years and two months ago," says Feodora. "We have a phone number for her, but it just rings and rings. We think she’s in Turkey and her husband might be in Russia, but we don’t know". Like many families, they get by on potato soup and homemade bread. "We hardly ever eat meat," says Mikhael.

On the other side of the village, 15-year-old Stepan Stefu is getting ready to cook the evening meal for his blind father and his brother. Stepan looks like a ten-year-old, and weighs just 39 kilos. Although he's an exceptionally bright child he had to leave school to look after the family. His mother moved to Turkey five years ago and has only been back once. Stepan doesn’t want to discuss her visit.

Next door we find Dmitri Zavrichko (43) who is bringing up his family of four alone, on an official salary of 400 USD per year. Luckily his skills as a mechanic means he can occasionally borrow a tractor from the local farm to raise some more money, and his brother also pitches in. "My wife left when our youngest girl was 20 months old. Now she's eight and doesn’t know anything about her mother."

Yet somehow people survive. In Proteagaylovka village, on the outskirts of the town of Bendery in the Transnistria region, we meet Grigory and Maria Voloshchuk, both 40, and their ten children. "We have a cow, and that saved our lives last summer," said Grigory. He calculates that the cow provides dairy products worth 115 USD per month, whilst he can only earn a maximum of 35 USD a month as a freelance appliance fitter. "It was so hot last summer and things got so bad I thought we were going to have to kill the cow. Luckily I managed to do some work for a farmer and he paid me in fodder."

All the families above will receive an 18-kilo parcel containing sugar, rice, buckwheat, wheat flour, corn flour, sunflower oil, and canned pork in the second half of March, which is designed to help them get through the leanest months. The first harvest of winter-planted wheat is due in July, but the almost total lack of snow so far means the soil is already dry and depleted. Local agronomist Milania Bodachevskaya says: "If we don’t get significant snow in the second half of March we will be in trouble. But a heavy frost would be very bad for our orchards."

The International Federation released some 250,000 Swiss francs (USD 231,000 or EUR 155,000) from its Disaster Relief Emergency Fund, to support the Moldova Red Cross operation to help some 6,700 people until the end of April. The Moldova Red Cross is targeting large and single-headed families in rural areas with its distribution of supplemental food assistance.

Donor interest in Moldova is high, reports the resident United Nations coordinator Kaarina Immonen, with ECHO, the Netherlands, Scandinavian, Chinese, Turkish and Azeri governments being among the leading contributors to a UN appeal which met 90 per cent of its target. The UN ran fodder supply programmes during the winter, and distributed food to pregnant and lactating women. A mid-year interagency mission will evaluate the aid operations, investigating early-warning systems and sustainable aid.

In the past, the Moldova Red Cross has run successful HIV/AIDS harm reduction and peer to peer programmes, anti-trafficking programmes and programmes for tuberculosis patients and their families. "The needs are very acute in Moldova," noted Red Cross president Larissa Byrca. "We are totally dependent on external funding - there is no culture of giving money to charity in our country yet"