Tajiks Suffer Gas Shortage

Uzbek threats to turn off the gas supply could be an economic disaster.

Tajiks Suffer Gas Shortage

Uzbek threats to turn off the gas supply could be an economic disaster.

It is midday at the Avtogazservis petrol station on the outskirts of Khujand in north Tajikistan, and a line of 300 trucks, cars and buses is barely moving. Many like Mukhtor Saidkamolov have been waiting since before sunrise. “Now it’s midday, and thank God my car is the third from the pump,” he said.

Saidkamolov and the others want to fill their vehicles with compressed natural gas, which is far cheaper than petrol. But Tajikistan’s major supplier – Uzbekistan – is threatening to cut off the supply if the country doesn’t pay its gas debts. In the meantime, it has already reduced deliveries to a minimum, causing shortages.

At the heart of the problem is the huge debt that Tajikistan has run up for its gas imports, which industry officials say is largely due to non-payment by consumers. Abdulfaiz Khushdilov, director of the state-run Tajikgaz in the northern Sogd region, said residential users are the biggest offenders, and accounted for 93 per cent of the 54 million somoni debt (about 19 million US dollars at the current exchange rate) that Tajikistan ran up last year.

The Uzbeks got tough in January, and began interrupting gas flows, according to Abdumubin Isoev, the chief engineer at Sogdgaz, a major distributor in the region. Since April, his company has had to restrict residential supplies to one and a half hours a day, down from the already limited daily ration of three hours.

For Khujand resident Nargis Vahidova, the dwindling supply is causing problems. “After work it is very difficult to get into overcrowded [public] transport to take you home,” she said. “By the time you get home, you have no more than an hour before the gas is turned off. Sometimes that isn’t long enough to cook supper for your child. And you also have to do the washing and bathe the child. There is no gas [at all] in the morning. And you can’t use an electric cooker because the voltage is too low.”

In recent years, many buses and private cars have been converted to run on gas. In Sogd, 60 per cent of a public transport fleet, which carries 290,000 people every day, now runs on natural gas.

“Gas is a cheap form of fuel, which reduces the cost of transport by four to five times compared with petrol,” explained the deputy head of the Khujand Transport Board, Abdujalil Babajanov. “Furthermore, the cost of the equipment needed to use this type of fuel pay themselves off in several months.” The engine conversion costs 750 to 800 dollars.

“We have calculated that if we have to convert the vehicles back to petrol, the cost of a trip across town may increase from 25 to 80 dirams [25 cents]. One also has to take into account that because of the likely increase in demand for petrol, its price will rise as well.”

One minibus driver who wished to remain anonymous said the shortage is giving him sleepless nights.

“I finish my shift at midnight and wait at the petrol station [for natural gas] until morning, without sleeping or resting,” he said.

A senior inspector with the state licensing and inspection department in Khujand is concerned that such sleep-deprived minibus drivers could be involved in accidents.

“One of them admitted to me that he makes two trips a day on [his] route and then goes home, because he’s afraid of falling asleep at the wheel,” said Tatyana Kozlovskaya, adding the resulting driver shortage is responsible for overcrowding on the region’s fleet of minibuses.

Meanwhile at Avtogazservis, Inomov said pressure in the pipelines has fallen so drastically that the station is struggling to cope and has to close in the evenings when the gas is turned on in people’s homes.

The Uzbek suppliers are unrelenting, and have warned that the flow of gas will dwindle further if Tajikistan does not pay up. The state-run provider Uztransgaz said on February 27 that supplies would be cut unless Tajikistan cleared its debts and made a pre-payment for March. It also demanded a letter of guarantee from the Tajik government that the outstanding debt - at that time around four million somoni - would be cleared by March 15.

Tajikistan averted immediate crisis by paying off some of the money owed, but the volume of deliveries has since dropped to a bare minimum.

An expert on Central Asian relations said on the condition of anonymity that restricting the gas supply to Tajikistan has a political as well as economic motive. “Uzbekistan has improved its relations with Russia. Now that it has this ‘big brother’, it will have levers of influence in this region,” he said.

Analysts agree that the cheap Uzbek gas is crucial to Tajikistan’s economic health, keeping prices in check and raising living standards.

The government insists it is dealing with the crisis.

The acting deputy head of the Sogd region, Nabijon Takhirov, said a commission has been set up to inspect petrol stations, installing meters at two of them to gain better data on the amounts being consumed.

Tahirov added that repairs have also been made to a 217-kilometre section of the Uzbek gas pipeline, which passes through the region. “We replaced a valve which was causing a gas leak. By this means we were able to raise pressure in the pipeline, which somewhat improved the situation,” he said.

The Tajiks are also hoping for a helping hand from Russia.

At a recent meeting with Tajik prime minister Akil Akilov in Dushanbe, the head of Russia’s giant gas firm Gazprom, Alexei Miller, said his company is interested in helping develop new gas fields. The hope is that four sites - in the Hissar Valley and Shahrinau in the west of the country, and in the Dangara and Farkhar regions in the south - could yield enough gas to satisfy domestic demand and even provide some for export.

Bakhtiar Valiev is an IWPR contributor in northern Tajikistan.
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