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

Uzbek Gas Flickers Out

People in one of the world’s major gas-producing countries endure a harsh winter without heating.
By IWPR Central Asia

Gas and electricity cuts in Uzbekistan have led to protests across the country by people exasperated with sitting in the cold and darkness.


In many parts of the country, the gas supply has been cut to almost nothing, while the electricity is turned off on a regular basis.


There are suggestions that the country’s reserves of gas – its principal energy resource – are running out. It’s an allegation officials angrily deny.


Some gas company staff said the cuts had nothing to do with availability but were rather the consequence of new rules designed to force customers to settle unpaid utility bills.


The energy cuts come at the worst time of the year – the last month has seen temperatures plummeting to minus 20 degrees, so that the lack of heating makes life especially hard for rural people whose homes are more suited to dealing with extreme heat.


In the latest protest, around 50 women from the village of Chorkhin, in the Pastdargom district of western Uzbekistan, blocked the main road from Samarkand to Bukhara on February 18, demanding that their gas and electricity should be turned back on.


A week earlier, at least 500 people blocked a road in another, larger protest staged in the Ishtikhan district, also in Samarkand region. Eyewitnesses said that in desperation, one woman threw herself under a car, but she was not harmed.


In eastern Uzbekistan, people have been protesting since February 15 in the city of Andijan. Roadblocks were set up on central streets, using whatever came to hand – rocks, wood, and iron bars.


There has been no gas in this major Fergana valley city for 15 days, and the electricity is constantly being turned off. People cannot cook or keep their children warm, and say they are sick of “living like cavemen”.


“We need gas not just to cook food, but to keep warm. The winter is very harsh this year,” said Zinaida Hamrakulova, a mother of four children.


Firewood is available, but the price - 10,000 sums or 10 US dollars for a handcart-load of logs - is beyond the means of many in this impoverished population.


Kashkadarya region, in the southwest of the country, has had it just as hard. Gas is in short supply even though the bulk of the country’s reserves lie under the ground in this region and there is a substantial extraction and distribution industry.


With little electricity and less gas available to homeowners, a new trade in firewood has sprung up since the beginning of the year. “We’ve never seen anything like it,” said a resident of the main town, Karshi, who asked not to be named. “Going to fetch logs has become a routine activity, but what can you do? You can’t die of cold.”


“We are returning to the Middle Ages,” said another Karshi resident.


The cold conditions have contributed to a significant rise in illness. Dr Ulash Yuldashev, the chief medic with Karshi’s first-aid department, said urgent call-outs had increased by about 40 per cent, with most cases involving respiratory tract problems.


According to Dr Yuldashev, most of the sick are children, “They fall ill and - with a high temperature – remain in cold buildings, frequently with no electricity.”


Some local officials in Kashkadarya have indicated that the shortage of gas stems from a slowdown in production at the major Shurtan gas field. The Kashkadarya region accounts for 90 per cent of the gas produced in Uzbekistan, so any change here would be worrying.


Uzbekistan is a major world producer of gas, and its annual production of almost 60 billion cubic metres is roughly comparable with that of neighbouring Turkmenistan, famed for its gas reserves. Unlike the latter country, the Uzbeks’ larger population means that most production goes on domestic consumption and only about 15 per cent is exported to Russia, Kazakstan and Kyrgyzstan.


“There’s no reason to hope for an improvement in the situation,” said Karshi’s deputy mayor, Normurad Hamzaev. “The natural gas supply is running out, while the population of the city is increasing.”


Hamzaev warned that next winter the city authorities will have to restrict supplies of coal and firewood as well as continuing to ration gas.


A construction worker said there were signs Shurtan was running out, as the pressure had dropped so much that his firm was asked to install a compressor pump at the wellhead last year.


“The natural gas used to be so strongly pressurised that it would rise by itself, but now it will be pumped out with a compressor,” explained the worker, who asked not to be named. “That means the gas supplies are running out. You can be sure that soon the entire country will be left without natural gas.”


In Tashkent, the deputy director of the gas extraction company Uzgeoneftegazdobycha, Eshnazar Soatov, categorically denied suggestions that reserves were low or production was falling.


Soatov was visibly irritated at the question, and paced the room repeating, “There is enough gas, we are producing at the previous large volumes.” He then broke off the interview and asked the journalist to leave his office.


According to the press service of the national oil and gas company Uzbekneftegaz, production levels remain high. Last year’s output of 59 billion cubic metres surpassed the previous year’s 58.1 billion.


Staff at the gas supply department in Kashkadarya said supplies had been cut deliberately on the orders of the Uztransgaz company in Tashkent. Uztransgaz manages the distribution network and was concerned at the mounting debts of its consumers.


“Uztransgaz is right and is demanding payment for the use of gas,” said an employee in Kashkadarya.


Consumers complain that they cannot pay because in the large public sector, many people have not received their wages for months.


Tulkin Karaev, Yusuf Rasulov and Zakirjon Ibrahimov are IWPR contributors in Karshi, Tashkent and Andijan.