KHUJAND, Tajikistan -- Across Central Asia's poorest country, basic urban services such as sanitation, water and public transport have often been neglected and under-financed. Even access to safe drinking water was sporadic in some provinces as recently as 2012.
In Khujand, Tajikistan's second biggest city, the apparatus for water distribution and wastewater collection systems dated back some six decades.
"I've been working at this hospital since its very beginning and I was sorry to see it in such a bad condition because of lack of water for the patients," said Larisa Veretennikova, a nurse at the Khujand Regional Hospital.
"We lost hope for the situation to improve, and I thought it would never revive again."
Over time, the pumps and pipes have drastically deteriorated, leaving most of the city's households and buildings with water flowing only occasionally and often heavily contaminated, giving poor taste from corroded water tubes.
This was particularly common in multi-storey buildings with weak pumping stations unable to feed water to higher floors. Water loss from pipe leakages was common too, making it difficult to monitor water consumption.
Institutional weaknesses at the municipal level, as well as inadequate funding to upgrade infrastructure, worsened the situation.
This situation resulted in no access to drinkable or even sufficient quantities of water, with service interrupted for long periods. Sometimes water ran for only a few hours a day in the city's buildings.
"We had serious difficulties with water supply," remembered Veretennikova. "Sometimes there was sand in it, and sometimes we even had to carry it in buckets from wherever we could find it so as to be able to do our daily tasks at the hospital."
Gaining 24-hour access to water
Ensuring 24-hour access to safe drinking water and proper sanitation and hygiene for households, businesses and public buildings in Tajikistan required international collaboration on multiple fronts to improve policies, institutions and infrastructure.
Because of the deficit in financing, the government turned to external aid, including the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) and its donors, to fill gaps not only in funding but also in expertise.
To improve water and wastewater infrastructure for all of Khujand's population, the EBRD lent $6.55 million (57.8 million TJS) to the Khujand Water Co. (KWC) and the Swiss State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO) gave $12.47 million (110 million TJS) in grants.
"The EBRD is investing in upgrading the municipal infrastructure as it is an important contribution to economic growth of the region," said Ayten Rustamova, EBRD Head of Office in Dushanbe.
"We see a real difference that this particular project has made to people living in Khujand, and we are proud to be a part of it."
The funding covered new pipes and water distribution networks, new domestic water meters, the replacement of deteriorated water and sewage pumps as well as development of new boreholes to increase the water supply capacity. Still to come during the next phase is the rehabilitation of Khujand's wastewater treatment plant.
The physical infrastructure investments came with improvements to "soft" infrastructure policies and legal systems.
SECO funded project design and implementation support work, while Finland paid for the city's Master Plan to help analyse the city's water source and its storage, delivery and treatment.
Norway contributed donor funds for a programme aimed at finding the best ways to improve the financial and operational performance of the KWC.
In addition, the EBRD's Early Transition Countries (ETC) Fund financed a corporate development plan to strengthen the institutional capacity of the water company and its stakeholder participation programme, allowing a platform for citizens' input to be considered prior to making any decisions.
As a result, Khujand's benefactors struck a crucial balance between pricing infrastructure services in such a way to preserve the financial viability of the KWC and at the same making them affordable.
"Together with the EBRD, Switzerland is proud to have supported Khujand municipality and the [KWC]. A key objective of the programme is to improve living conditions and economic opportunities through an improved water supply and sanitation. This includes safe and inclusive access to water and wastewater treatment as well as better hygiene," said Walburga Roos, Head of the Swiss Co-operation Office in Tajikistan.
Water is life
All those improvements turned out to be life-changing for 161,000 residents of Khujand as well as for 571 businesses and 230 state organisations, including schools and hospitals.
The new system has minimised the risks of water-borne diseases from corroded pipes and illegal outdoor community taps.
"The quality of water has improved, and so has the supply. I think that in the nearest future we will observe a significant decrease in kidney diseases," said Azamkhon Kamolov, a doctor at the Khujand Regional Hospital.
Manija Ziyeboi, a student at Secondary School No. 6 in Khujand, summed up the importance of safe water: "There is no life without water. We need it for cooking, drinking and laundry. If we drink dirty water, we can get sick."
"We need to use clean water in an efficient way because it is a foundation for our health."