Geographical and Biophysical Characteristics
Geographically, the boundaries of the Western Pamirs can be determined by the course of the Panj River in the south and west, the mountain ranges of the Alai and Trans-Alai to the north and the topographic change from mountain ranges to high plateaus in the east (see Map 1). The Western Pamirs cover an area of approximately 25,700km2 characterized by deep valleys and surrounding mountain ranges with peaks reaching over 7,000m asl. The continental climate provides contrasting temperature regimes and seasonal precipitation with great variability over the years. A steep precipitation gradient running from northwest with annual rainfall of 500mm to the southeast with less than 100mm is observed (see precipitation map). The water regime is mainly influenced by melting snow and glacier with maximum discharge from June to August. Most of the territory is barren land in rocky terrain. Combined with the harsh climatic conditions only marginal habitat for humans, fauna and flora exist. Arable land is estimated at less than 0.4% of total land area in this semiarid to arid high mountain desert ecosystem (see land cover map). Alluvial fans and riverbanks are preferred locations of settlements and cultivable land.Water scarcity and a harsh temperature regime with minimum temperatures in winter as low as -30° C severely constrain biomass production. Typically, the vegetation period constitutes between 295 days at altitudes around 1,200m asl and 120 days at 3,500m. Predominant vegetation cover are sparse scrub or meadow plant communities on mountain slopes and mesophyllic forests (tugai) on riparian areas in valley bottoms. Although only few species are adapted to the extreme habitats in this arid high-mountain region, the Pamirs are renowned for their biodiversity and wildlife species, such as the Snow Leopard, Siberian ibex or Marco Polo sheep.
Local Societies and Livelihoods
Politically, the Western Tajik Pamirs can be defined as the territory covered by the seven western districts of GBAO; Darvaz, Vanj, Rushan, Shugnan, Khorog, Roshtkala and Ishkashim. These political boundaries match very well the geographical delineation of the Western Pamirs and enclose the specific biophysical and socio-cultural characteristics of this region. Gorno Badakhshan is administratively divided into eight districts, each of them composed of six to nine jamoats, the smallest political entity. At village level the socalledVillage Organizations including several sub-committees, established by the Mountain Society Development and Support Programme (MSDSP) of the Aga Khan Foundation (AKF), form unofficial basicdemocratic structures. The dominant religious group throughout the Western Pamirs are the Ismailis, a part of the Shi'a Imami Ismaili branch of Islam. Approximately 196,000 people live in 375 settlements lining the rivers in the main valleys at altitudes between 1,200-3,500m asl. Although thinly populated with only 7.6 persons per km2 the territory's scarce land resources are under high pressure. Mixed mountain agriculture with subsistence irrigation agriculture and livestock farming is the dominant form of livelihood in rural areas of the Western Pamirs. On average 0.7ha of arable land, 3 cows and 9 sheep and goats per household with 6-7 family members constitute the main agricultural capital (see arable land and livestock maps). Scarce land resources, low degree of mechanization, high labour input and unfertile soils often allow producing hardly sufficient yield for subsistence purpose. On an average, self-sufficiency rate amounts to 70%. Poor families in vulnerable villages still depend on humanitarian aid in form of food stuffs, which started during the turmoil of civil war in the nineties.
Khorog, the oblast center, with around 28,000 inhabitants is the largest settlement and the only city in Gorno Badakhshan. As the economic center of the Tajik Pamirs it is home to main services and infrastructure such as airport, university, hospital, government offices, hotels, bank, internet café, small shops, main market (bazaar) and various aid organizations. Gorno Badakhshan's economy is predominated by the subsistence-oriented agricultural sector. The service sector (government administration, health care and education) and the industrial sector consisting of power industries and small-scale enterprises located in oblast and district centers only offer minor income opportunities. Employment possibilities are generally scarce and salaries often insufficient to live on. Monthly income in the service sector range between 8-40 Somoni (2.5-13 USD), local traders may earn up to 150 Somoni (48 USD) and employees in aid organization between 100-500 USD. Hence, people still heavily rely on subsistence production and remittances from family members working in the capital or in Russia. As most goods have to be imported over long distances from Dushanbe or Osh (Kyrgyzstan) at high transport costs, the majority of the products are very expensive compared to the people's income. Daily required comestible goods such as flour, rice or sugar cost between 1.5-3 Somoni (0.5-1 USD) per kilogram.
Energy and Infrastructure
The Tajik Pamirs inherited comprehensive infrastructure for transport, public services and power generation from the former Soviet Union. However, roads, bridges and power infrastructure severely suffered since independence due to lack of maintenance, frequent natural hazards and years of civil unrest. There is no regular public transport system and mobility within the Pamirs is severely constrained by bad road conditions and high petrol costs. Access to the Western Pamirs is not perennially guaranteed since roads connecting to the capital are closed in winter and early spring due to heavy snow fall. Temporal inaccessibility stresses the importance of the local production of goods and energy. Gorno Badakhshan is home to around 50 smallscale hydropower plants providing electricity to decentralized and major grids. Nevertheless, power supply is irregular and insufficient in capacity especially in winter due to reduced water discharge. Main energy resources besides electricity are scarce local biomass fuels such as wood, shrubs and dung, as well as expensive imported fossil fuels. Water not only plays an important role for power generation, but also for subsistence agriculture. Extensive irrigation channels lining steep mountain slopes over long distances feed arable lands and often serve as source of drinking water. Water supply systems are commonly only installed in larger settlements such as district or oblast centers. As other major infrastructure, means of communication and sources of information are concentrated in the district centers. Khorog offers internet, TV, phone and mail services, whereas remote settlements often lack any modern forms of information flow and communication.
With a literacy rate of almost 99%, education is a major capital and enjoys high esteem in this mountain society. Also in very remote villages schools provide classes up to the 11th grade including courses in English or German language. Hospitals at jamoat, district and oblast levels offer health care from primary treatments to basic surgeries. In addition medical points at village level initiated and supplied by aid organizations allow local treatment of basic health issues. Yet, severe injuries and diseases can only be treated in the capital hospital in Dushanbe. Lack of financial means is threatening the maintenance and quality of the extensive education and health care system in the Tajik Pamirs.