Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Shymkent Energy Dodge

Many Kazaks have come to see gas theft as a matter of survival.
By Aitken Kadyrbekov

At the end of March, the Kaz Trans Gas Distribution company turned detective. The company conducted lightning raids on randomly chosen houses in the southern city of Shymkent, where it supplies gas. Losses of up to 20 per cent, uncovered at the end of February, had convinced it that something must be afoot.

"These losses cannot be explained by natural wastage," said the company's press secretary, Jandarbek Katpabaev. "The average wastage in gas delivery is around seven per cent, so we had to assume that the remaining gas is being stolen - and we needed to find out how."

Inspectors targeted private houses, because unlike apartment blocks they tend not to have gas metres fitted by the company. In 16 of the houses, they found concealed pipes running off the main gas network, which they estimated had been used to steal gas worth 3,500 US dollars.

"The inspection was quite random, we just went into the first houses we saw. In every other house we found equipment for taking gas illegally. Shymkent has around 90,000 private houses, so it isn't difficult to work out where the missing gas is going," said Katpabaev.

Theft of this kind is made easier by the positioning of gas lines, most of which were laid during Soviet times. Pipes pass through gardens and behind fences, making it easy for householders to access them.

"The only way to eliminate theft completely would be to rebuild the entire infrastructure, but we can't afford that. One km of gas pipe costs a million dollars, and we don't have that sort of money," said Katpabaev. "Since we came onto the market at the end of 2000, we have spent around four million dollars replacing damaged pipes. The wide-scale theft we now face could ruin us."

But many Kazaks have come to see gas theft as a matter of survival since the suppliers - monopolies in most cases - are constantly lobbying the authorities to let them increase tariffs. In southern Taraz, consumers are even required to pay up front through a "guarantee fee" which the company has levied to cover their expenses in advance.

This kind of practice is a symptom of Kazakstan's confused commercial enterprise legislation, according to economist Avangard Ungarsynov. "Anti-monopoly laws specify that gas companies are selling a service, but according to the civil code, gas is classified as a commodity," he said.

"Preliminary payments cannot be insisted upon on for services, but can be demanded for commodities. Consumers can take suppliers to court over preliminary payments, but when they do, the courts don't know which statutory act takes precedence."

In the Bostandyk regional court in Almaty alone, there are five or six hearings a day on this issue. "Many lawsuits go on for years with no outcome. So the government's failure to pass any laws which will regulate the complex relations between monopoly suppliers and consumers is rather strange," he said.

Meanwhile, the siphoning continues. "I know this is illegal and dangerous, but what can I do? I have five children who need to be fed, clothed and educated," one gas thief told IWPR.

Like many, he is using stolen gas to run a small business - a bakery - which he started after losing his job. Faced with huge gas bills, he asked a neighbour to siphon off gas from pipe running through his land, which could result in a leak and possible explosion.

There are safer ways to steal gas. Some people use contacts within the industry to have extra pipes properly connected, others find ways of falsifying their metres or do deals with company inspectors. However, some households have started connected unregistered containers to the network, which can also be hazardous.

Last summer, Sergei Mukhametjanov bought a primitive refuelling gas cylinder for his cottage on the outskirts of Almaty. The device exploded, destroying an outhouse and damaging the cottage, but Mukhametjanov is not deterred. "I'm not bothered that the cylinder exploded, I'll just buy a new one from a different dealer," he said.

"I only live at the cottage in the summer and use very little gas, yet the company would charge me 100 dollars to be connected to the network, plus 4.5 dollars per month in tariffs. The cylinders cost three dollars and last for two months."

Psychologist Diana Ismagulova says such incidents are symptoms of a deeper malaise. "The economic crisis has brought daily stresses which push many people to take unjustified risks," she said.

"The person who buys a gas cylinder from a dealer is tempting fate, as if to say 'I live so badly already, surely God won't make things any worse'."

Aitken Kadyrbekov is an independent journalist in Almaty