Kyrgyzstan: Growing Alarm at Gas Theft

National gas provider facing crisis caused by wily Kyrgyz pilfering supplies.

Kyrgyzstan: Growing Alarm at Gas Theft

National gas provider facing crisis caused by wily Kyrgyz pilfering supplies.

The Kyrgyz national gas company is fighting a losing battle against wily consumers who have become adept at stealing supplies from pipelines.

The use of increasingly innovative methods to siphon away the gas has resulted in a huge shortfall for the majority state-owned energy provider, Kyrgyzgaz.

And since most of the country’s supplies are imported from its neighbours, in particular Uzbekistan, fears are mounting that unpaid bills and unchecked losses could end up straining relations between the states.

A July financial statement from Kyrgyzgaz has shown natural gas worth around 5 million US dollars has been consumed in Kyrgyzstan, but has yet to be paid for. The company, in turn, owes Uzbekistan over 1 million US dollars for imported supplies.

According to a press release from Kyrgyzgaz dated early July, reported incidents of gas being obtained illegally are steadily increasing. Methods range from puncturing pipelines to damaging meters installed to measure usage.

Officials say this theft sparks a vicious circle, as it robs Kyrgyzgaz of funds that would otherwise be used to maintain the pipelines and secure them against tampering.

In the capital alone, 54 cases of gas theft were noted in the last five months – the tip of the iceberg, say officials.

A Bishkek resident, penalised by the authorities for breaking his gas meter, told IWPR he had to borrow money to pay off the fine. However, it was not long before he had hit upon a better method for defrauding Kyrgyzgaz.

“When the gas meter indicates too big a volume for the amount of gas consumed, I disconnect the gas and, using a vacuum cleaner, roll back the meter,” he told IWPR. “Now our family has no problems making payments for gas.”

An elderly Bishkek resident told IWPR that she was forced to use stolen gas because her pension was not enough to pay for it. “We created the way of stealing ourselves. My husband simply made a hole in the pipeline before it connects to the meter, and we used the gas for free,” she said.

Kyrgyzgaz believes the biggest culprits are illegal businesses such as street-side caterers. Vasiliy Berestov, the chief engineer of the company’s Bishkek branch, told IWPR that these traders use up huge volumes of gas while paying practically nothing for it.

Also to blame are the occupants of large private homes, some of whom are expert at concealing illegal usage.

“It is virtually impossible to reveal cases of stealing in big 2-storey villas,” said Anatoliy Kosov, who heads the Kyrgyzgaz department that controls gas consumption. “During our last inspection, we found well-hidden gas pipes in the wall, separated from the main pipeline…. These people could have consumed unlimited volumes free of charge.”

Besides denting Kyrgyzgaz profits, illegal siphoning also poses a threat to the people living around them, as gas leaks from tampered pipelines can cause explosions.

The problem of stolen gas was at the top of the agenda at an emergency meeting of Kyrgyzgaz officials earlier in July. But fresh suggestions to counter the crime were muted, as specialists recalled the debacle in 2000, when the installation of 10,000 new gas meters, paid for by the Japanese, failed to stop the scammers.

“In order to reduce the number of thefts, we installed seals on the meters, which [shows us] if anyone interferes with the counter,” said Kosov. However, the Kyrgyz soon wised up to the new technology, and use of counterfeit seals swiftly became widespread.

Berestov believes the only way the company can stop its customers from running away with its gas is by getting the state to introduce harsher penalties.

“People steal gas in great amounts and they are not concerned about punishment because there is no legal way of dealing with them,” he said.

Svetlana Nikonova is a student at the Slavonic University in Bishkek.

Support our journalists