BACKGROUND: Before the implosion of the USSR in 1991, the Soviet centrally planned economy left Central Asian nations with a number of mega-projects, turning the region into the USSR’s cotton plantation while a number of hydroelectric facilities were built in the upstream states of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan both to regulate water flow and generate electricity. Hydrocarbon poor Tajikistan wants to build more hydroelectric dams to allow it to generate electricity for export, a prospect that downstream neighbors Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan fear will disrupt regular water releases and damage their agriculture. Besides hydroelectric projects, global warming is altering Central Asia’s alpine environment as glaciers recede.
Tajikistan has an abundance of glacier-fed streams and rivers and more than 1,300 natural lakes. Tajikistan also contains many glaciers, of which the 270-square-mile Fedenko glacier is the largest in the world outside the Polar Regions.
Hydrocarbon poor Tajikistan, facing rising natural gas prices from Uzbekistan, sees increasing its hydroelectric potential as a growth sector in the form of electricity exports to South Asia, with water discharges for power generation increasingly taking precedence over the agricultural concerns of their downstream neighbors, a policy that Uzbekistan in particular has opposed.
Tajikistan has few immediate options but to attempt to develop its hydropower assets. Only 7 percent of Tajikistan’s land is arable, and the U.S. government estimated that the country’s 2013 oil production was a paltry 210 barrels per day and produced only 6.7 billion cubic feet (bcf) of natural gas, forcing it to import 44 bcf to meet demand.
According to Kyrgyz expert Valentina Kasymova, Tajikistan’s hydropower potential is over 300 billion kilowatt-hours. But Tajikistan’s reliance on the Nurek dam, led state-owned electricity holding company Barki Tojik on Oct. 1 to introduce partial restrictions for electricity supplies in rural areas in order to conserve water in Nurek’s reservoir, cutting electricity throughout most of the country from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. until the spring. In 2013 similar restrictions were introduced on Oct. 26 and were lifted on April 15, 2014.
But even these figures are optimistic. On Oct. 15 the internet portal barknest.tj reported that many Tajik rural residents receive electricity nine hours a day on average, a figure that drops to seven and a half hours in some rural districts. The situation is aggravated by the fact that the country lacks gas and thermal supply systems, and residents have to use electricity to heat their homes and cook meals.
IMPLICATIONS: Adding to Tajikistan’s problems, Central Asian countries are the world “leaders” in inefficient water use, being among the world’s highest per capita users. Tajikistan’s per capita consumption rate is the seventh highest in the world, and Tajikistan has the lowest rate in the world of water use per US$1 of GDP, using nearly 3.5 cubic meters of water per dollar of GDP, a rate more than 45 times higher than that of Spain.
Despite such shortfalls, the administration of Tajik President Emomali Rakhmon is pinning its hopes on becoming Central Asia’s leading electricity exporter, which has required outside assistance from Russia and Iran. The US$720 million Sangtuda-1 hydropower dam with four turbines generating 670 megawatts (MW) was completed in 2009 with Russian investment. The smaller Sangtuda-2 hydropower dam, begun during the Soviet era and completed with Iranian investment, began operating two years ago at a limited capacity, its two turbines generating a total of 220 MW. The Tajik government is tens of millions of dollars in arrears for both Sangtuda dams, and Sangtuda-2 has been closed for maintenance since January 2014.
The crown jewel of Tajikistan’s hydroelectric dreams is completing the vast 3,600-megawatt Soviet-era Vakhsh River Rogun hydroelectric cascade, begun in 1976, which, if completed, would stand 1,150 feet tall. Building the dam is a major strategic priority, as every winter, the power crisis means most Tajiks are only able to have three hours of electricity every day. Brushing aside regional criticism, President Rakhmon has stated that Tajikistan will use its natural resources “for the benefit of its people” while adhering to international laws.
Building Rogun is beyond Dushanbe’s capabilities; the government was forced to announce a tender for participation in the project, because the cost of the work was appraised at US$ 5-6 billion. In 2013 Tajikistan generated 17.09 billion kilowatt hours (kWh), exporting 1 billion kW, primarily to Afghanistan. Uzbekistan strongly supports the position that the Amu Darya is in fact a “trans boundary” river, which accordingly makes it a regional and international rather than bilateral issue. Seeking to allay regional concerns, the Tajik government in September established the Agency for Supervision of Safety of Hydrotechnical Facilities, whose manager, Bahodur Isupov, commented that the new agency will “supervise observance of norms and standards of construction and repair of dams, hydropower plant buildings, water discharge tunnels, and other hydrotechnical facilities.”
Despite the government’s preference for mega-hydroelectric projects, Barq-i Tojik is attempting to diversify, reporting on Oct. 22 that it will bring online 16 small hydroelectric power stations, with a combined capacity to generate 11 megawatts of electricity, in various regions by the start of the cold season, with 12 of them already operational. But Barq-i Tojik’s broader diversification efforts remain uneven as while it currently has 316 small hydroelectric power stations capable of generating 25 megawatts in total, only 60 are currently operational.
Tajikistan may soon be exporting water as well, as Iran is considering importing water from Tajikistan via a pipeline, where earlier this month Iranian officials discussed the possibility of importing water during a trip to Dushanbe, according to Iranian Energy Minister Hamidreza Chitchian, updating a proposal first broached a decade ago. Iran stressed its readiness to invest $3 billion in the project to supply Tajik water to Iran’s Khorasan province via a 373-mile water pipeline from Lake Sarez in the Gorno-Badakhshan region in eastern Tajikistan to Khorasan. Iran has also suggested shipping water by rail, adding as an incentive that it could be an oil for water barter arrangement. The worsening drought in Iran on Oct. 5 led Ayatollah Mohammad-Ali Movahedi Kermani in Tehran during Id al-Adha prayers in Tehran to call for prayers for rain in every mosque in Iran.
CONCLUSIONS: There are alternatives to gigantic Soviet-legacy projects like Rogun, such as smaller, more numerous free-flowing hydroelectric facilities that would alleviate many of the downstream nations’ concerns, which have been advocated by Western specialists with such institutions as the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund and the Asian Development Bank.
As for regional squabbles over water rights, a diplomatic solution now exists – the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses, whose Article 5 states, “Watercourse States shall in their respective territories utilize an international watercourse in an equitable and reasonable manner.” While Uzbekistan has ratified the convention, it is the only Central Asian country to do so. In the absence of an international agreement, Uzbek president Islam Karimov continues to seek support for Uzbekistan’s position on further Tajik and Kyrgyz hydroelectric construction, raising the issue during an October 25 meeting with Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdimuhammedov in Ashgabat, with the Turkmen media reporting that Berdimuhammedov backed the rational use of water in Central Asia “based on respect for each other’s interests.”
Russia, China and the U.S. should press other Central Asian nations to adopt the constitution as well as assist in finding financing for smaller, free-flowing hydroelectric facilities, or water will continue to trouble Central Asian relations as the USSR’s most environmentally destructive legacy. In the meantime, the Tajiks face another winter with dark, cold evenings.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Dr. John C.K. Daly is an international correspondent for UPI and Central Asia-Caucasus Institute non-resident Fellow.
(Image Attribution: kremlin.ru via Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons 3.0)