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

Tajikistan's Energy Dilemma

Tajikistan is desperate to use its hydropower resources - but does it risk causing problems with its Central Asian neighbours if it dams up vital water resources?
By Artyom Fradchuk
Tajikistan is moving ahead with plans to finish work on a giant hydroelectric project that could solve its energy problems at a stroke, but there is a risk that doing so will worsen relations with its bigger neighbour Uzbekistan.



When the Rogun dam in southern Tajikistan comes into operation it will be among the biggest in the world - but the huge volumes of water it will retain would potentially deprive Uzbekistan and other Central Asian states of much-needed irrigation.



The ambitious Rogun project began back in 1976, when Soviet planners started work on a hydroelectric power plant with a dam that, at 335 metres, would be the world’s highest.



Some building work was done, but by the end of the Eighties, political liberalisation in the Soviet Union brought local protests against the scheme.



After the USSR fell apart in 1991, Tajikistan found itself independent, impoverished, and on the brink of what was to be five years of civil war, so there was no question of resuming work at Rogun. In 1993, much of the structure completed so far was swept away by flooding.



It was hard for the Tajiks to find external investors willing to take on the commercial risk involved in a huge project in a country still facing so many problems with its economy and infrastructure.



RUSSIAN MONEY PROVIDES SOLUTION



In the end it was Moscow - which once heavily subsidised Soviet Tajikistan and still retains a strong political, security and commercial interest in the country - that came to the rescue. In 2004, RUSAL, a world-class aluminium producer believed to be close to the Kremlin, signed a deal under which it will finish the Rogun power station.



This is only part of a two billion US dollar investment package by RUSAL that also includes new production units at Tajikistan’s huge but decaying aluminium plant at Tursunzade. The smelter, together with a brand new aluminium plant that RUSAL hopes to build at Shaartuz in southern Tajikistan, nearer the two dams, will require enormous amounts of electricity – which explains the Russian firm’s interest in hydropower, the one feasible source of cheap energy in this mountainous country.



“I welcome any investment in the implementation of energy projects,” Rogun power station director Sanat Asoev told IWPR. “Our country stands eighth in the world - and first in Central Asia - in terms of its energy reserves.”



Asoev predicts that in 20 years’ time, Tajikistan will be a leading electricity exporter, with the sector creating many jobs and the government reaping substantial revenues.



The Rogun scheme would dam up the river Vakhsh, a major tributary of the Amu Darya, one of Central Asia’s two great rivers.



Downstream from the Rogun scheme, the Vakhsh river is already held in check by another giant hydroelectric dam, Nurek, which for 30 years has supplied almost all of Tajikistan’s electricity. And smaller power plants are already planned lower down the river, at Sangtuda and Baipaza.



Russia’s major power company United Energy Systems is already working on the Sangtuda-1 station, with a view to selling excess power to Afghanistan. And in a reflection of the Tajik leadership’s careful balancing act in the region, a neighbouring plant called Sangtuda-2 is being developed by Iran.



In the future there should be opportunities to export the excess electricity and earn significant revenues. To facilitate this, the energy ministers of Tajikistan, Iran and Afghanistan signed an agreement in February which will see a high-voltage powerline laid from Rogun and the other hydroelectric stations on the Vakhsh river to Afghanistan. Iran and Pakistan, and eventually India, are also expected to consume Tajik electricity in the future.



DAMS COULD CREATE DROUGHT FOR OTHER CENTRAL ASIANS



Add to the export potential the possibility of expanding aluminium production - an industrial process notorious for its heavy electricity consumption - and the economic benefits to Tajikistan are obvious.



But the bigger question is whether these ambitious energy plans risk creating tensions with its water-starved Central Asian neighbours.



The Amu Darya provides the irrigation water essential to the survival of large swathes of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, as well as Afghanistan and Tajikistan itself. So much water has been drawn off the Amu Darya in recent decades that the river no longer reaches the Aral Sea, so that this landlocked water mass divided between Uzbekistan and Kazakstan has shrunk drastically, with catastrophic results for the local environment and human health.



The Uzbek government is naturally wary of any further curbs on the Amu Darya’s flow - and the Rogun dam would effectively be a giant tap which the Tajiks could turn on and off at will.



A sectoral expert at Tajikistan’s energy ministry, who did not want to be named, said the completed chain of reservoirs - including those held back by the Nurek and Rogun giants - would hold “immense volumes” of water.



“If the [water] is held here on the river Vakhsh, then they will not get into the Panj/Amu Darya river, and will not reach the fields of Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakstan, or the Aral Sea,” he said.



“This will be the cause of disputes with other countries.”



FARMERS AND ELECTRICITY NEED WATER AT DIFFERENT TIMES



The water expert went on to explain how the needs of irrigation and energy production can come into conflict. “Demand for electricity grows during the winter so that a hydroelectric station…. will power the generating turbines by releasing large volumes of water from the reservoir,” he said. “In the hot summer, demand for electricity falls to a minimum. But water is needed for irrigation.”



There is added pressure on a power station to withhold water over the warmer months - and deprive farmers downstream of irrigation - because over the summer the rivers that feed it are full to bursting because of spring snow melting. In the winter, when the generators need to be running at full capacity, the reservoir will not be filled up by new water as the river sources are iced up in the high mountains.



Hydrogeologist Anvar Abbasov noted that it will take a long time and a lot of water even to get the new Rogun plant started, “To fill the Rogun reservoir, water will need to be held back over several years. That is water that would be used to irrigate cotton fields and orchards in the southern regions of Tajikistan, and in the valleys of Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakstan.”



Georgy Petrov, an academic at Tajikistan’s Institute of Water and Ecology, disagrees with the pessimists, saying the Rogun reservoir can be filled up gradually as the dam is constructed. “Dam construction will go on for five or six years, and in that period the reservoir can be easily filled without harming anyone else,” he said.



That is not a view shared in Uzbekistan, where Tajik hydropower schemes, and the wider issue of who has rights to stop water flowing along rivers that are shared between states, have become major topics in the media.



WHOSE WATER IS IT ANYWAY?



The Central Asia states have made numerous attempts to reach formal agreements on the fundamental issue of water, with limited success.



The two smallest countries, mountainous Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, control the heads of Central Asia’s major rivers, and have an interest in generating energy from them. The bigger states - Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakstan - are dependent on these same rivers to support agricultural populations on their mainly flat territories.



The Uzbeks and Kazaks have the political and economic clout to make life unpleasant for anyone who cuts off their water. The Uzbeks, for instance, periodically suspend much-needed gas supplies to Kyrgyzstan in retaliation for water being dammed up over the summer.



The energy producers - the Tajiks and Kyrgyz - argue that water is a commodity that should be bartered fairly against their neighbours’ resources, such as coal and gas. That is a view put to IWPR by an official at the Tajik state-owned electricity firm Bark-i-Tojik, “Why can’t Tajikistan exploit its own water resources, including creating large reservoirs? Neighbouring countries such as Uzbekistan, which provides us with gas, are constantly using their natural resources to put pressure on us through.”



But the Kazaks and Uzbek say that water flows from one state to another and is thus a shared rather than private good.



WATER COULD BE A SOURCE OF STRIFE



In an unstable region, the debate is more than academic - and could be explosive if the Uzbeks, in particular, felt their domestic economy was being threatened by a selfish neighbour.



According to Ilhom Narziev, a Tajikistan-based journalist who covers international affairs, “The problems of water use affect the interests of all the countries in the region, and they need to be solved jointly.



“Approving any decision that fails to take one’s neighbours’ interests into account will inevitably lead to conflict, and could become a destabilising factor in a region where the situation is already complex.”



As they begin work on Rogun, the Russian investors will have to weigh up regional politics as well as narrower commercial concerns.



RUSAL has shown itself receptive to Uzbek worries on another matter, the Tursunzade aluminium plant. The plant, located close to the border, belches out fumes which Uzbekistan says are harmful to agriculture and human health in areas affected by the pollution. RUSAL is helping clean up the Tursunzade plant, and its head Oleg Deripaska recently acknowledged the concerns expressed by Uzbek officials after he visited Tashkent.



OWNERSHIP ISSUES CLOUD PROGRESS ON ROGUN PROJECT



Right now, the Rogun project is being held up by contractual issues. RUSAL has said it will have built the dam up to 225 metres and have two generating units in operation by 2011.



But there is still some disagreement about how much of a stake the Russian firm will get. Tajik officials argue that they have contributed a great deal, in the form of the structures left behind from the Soviet period, but the real value of these is debatable due to decay and damage over the last 16 years.



RUSAL spokesman Alexander Kasatkin said the delay was due to problems encountered when laying down the project’s technical parameters, but would not comment on how the stock and electricity would be divided between his company and the Tajik state. “There’s an agreement…. not to issue comments until the project is presented and specific agreements have been reached,” he said.



Since a lavish inauguration ceremony last year, Rogun has remained virtually deserted.



Mahmud Turakulov, who has worked as a migrant worker in Russia for many years, travelled to the dam site with a friend when he heard work was starting up there. “We hoped to find work at Rogun, but everything is closed, no construction has begun. Our hopes of finding jobs in our own country were dashed, and soon we’ll have to leave again,” he said.



Asoev, the Rogun plant director for the Tajik side, was more forthcoming, saying, “Since the agreement was signed with RUSAL 15 months ago, the two sides have not yet arrived at a common view on certain matters including the height and type of the dam, the division of shares and so on. These matters affect [Tajikistan’s] national interests and must be carefully thought through.”



PRESSING DOMESTIC DEMAND FOR ELECTRICITY



The average resident of Tajikistan is likely to welcome any improvement in energy provision. Many rural residents have no more than three or four hours’ electricity a day and do not receive gas at all. Even in the capital Dushanbe, there are frequent power cuts and the gas - all of it imported from Uzbekistan - is on just four hours a day, and then only in cold weather.



In the village of Vakhsh, in the region where the new electricity generating schemes are planned, local resident Odina Mahmudov told IWPR, “Next to our village there are two hydroelectric stations which were built almost 50 years ago. We used to have electricity, but now we have it for two hours in the morning and two in the evening. So we have no [phone] communications, we can’t listen to the radio or watch television. Almost all the trees in the village have been cut down for firewood.”



She worries that local people will see little benefit even if the Rogun dam is completed, “When I hear that once the hydroelectric station is built, the electricity will be sold abroad, I think we will continue to freeze with no power. Everyone thinks about money, and no one cares about ordinary people.”



Artyom Fradchuk is an IWPR correspondent in Dushanbe.