Wednesday, 25 September 2002

TAJIK HYDROELECTRIC PLANTS IN DANGER

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By Konstantin Parshin is a freelance journalist based in Tajikistan (9/25/2002 issue of the CACI Analyst)

According to the Tajik Emergency Ministry of Tajikistan, the landslide at the Baipaza hydroelectric plant is still a real threat for the plant itself and for the settlements located downstream the river Vahksh in the southern Khatlon province, unless action is taken to prevent the slide forming a dam and blocking the flow of the river. Lately (in September), the Asian Development Bank (ADB) declared an earmarking of a $5.3 million loan to Tajikistan to prevent the disaster.

According to the Tajik Emergency Ministry of Tajikistan, the landslide at the Baipaza hydroelectric plant is still a real threat for the plant itself and for the settlements located downstream the river Vahksh in the southern Khatlon province, unless action is taken to prevent the slide forming a dam and blocking the flow of the river. Lately (in September), the Asian Development Bank (ADB) declared an earmarking of a $5.3 million loan to Tajikistan to prevent the disaster.

The peak of the danger at Baipaza was in March-April 2002, in the period of spring showers and heavy rains. This summer, several assessment missions comprising international and local experts explored the high clay slopes in the areas adjacent to the hydropower station. The landslide is carrying between 5 and 10 million cubic meters of mud; and it has come very close to the banks of the river.

Initially, both the Energy and Emergency Ministries were intending to cope with the mudslide by setting off a series of controlled blasts to break up the mass, - Victor Silantiev, the Ministry of Energy leading specialist says, - According to estimates, some 500 shells would have been needed to carry out the operation. Besides that, we should have involved the Tajik Defense Ministry soldiers and the Russian 201st motorized division. Eventually, we rejected that idea. The blasts could have provoked unforeseen consequences with devastating results.

That is why the Tajik government approached the Asian Development Bank. An ADB loan will be used for drainage works and reinforcement of the slopes. The country will receive excavators and monitoring equipment for long-term studies and scientific activities. Maintaining reliable flows in the Vakhsh river is vital for Tajikistan and the downstream countries of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.

The Baipaza plant is not the only power supply object in danger. Significant funds and essential technical support are needed for the rehabilitation of the Nurek hydroelectric plant, the biggest energy producer in Tajikistan and Central Asia. Expensive outdoor switchboards and high voltage pylons' concrete platforms are caving in because of the formation of crevices and craters in saline deposits.

The construction of a huge hydroelectric power station at Roghun, 100 kilometers northeast of the Tajik capital of Dushanbe, had special strategic importance in Soviet times. It was designed not only for Tajikistan's needs, but also for provision of electricity to other Soviet Central Asian republics. In the early 1990s, with the outbreak of civil war in Tajikistan, construction of the plant was stopped. The plant's rated earthquake capacity is supposed to withstand a quake measuring up to 10 on the Richter scale, but many scientists warn that restarting construction of the plant would be dangerous. Experts have evidence that the soil in the area contains large amounts of limestone, and the huge volume of water in the plant's reservoir could cause earthquakes.

Since last winter, there have been quite a number of earthquakes in Tajikistan. In January 2002, several people died, dozens were injured when a severe quake struck several villages around Roghun. 1,300 villagers were left homeless. That particular earthquake with an epicenter in Afghanistan, reached a force of 7.2 and caused the movement of mud and stones, forming two huge cracks on the hill's slope near the Baipaza plant. The frequent rainfalls last spring kept abundantly feeding the clay slopes with moisture. Uncontrolled deforestation of slopes in many regions of Tajikistan is another danger, and not only for the energy sector.

Tajikistan is the second country in the world in terms of specific share and the eighth in terms of absolute share of water resources per kilometer of territory; 54 percent of Central Asia's annual water stock is formed in Tajikistan's glaciers and highland rivers. Tajikistan supplies more than half of Central Asia's water. However with the lowest per capita income among the former Soviet republics, Tajikistan has an outstanding energy debt of $51 million. Outages in the electricity grid and heating system, especially in the wintertime, have become the norm; gas and coal are in great demand. As for gas supply, Tajikistan largely depends on its closest neighbor, Uzbekistan. The latter demands prepayment, and very often switches off the pipeline without any notifications and explanations. Regrettably the two Central Asian neighbors still cannot adjust a system of mutually profitable economic interactions, and ensure adequate services for each other.

Lately, there have been new debates about the renewal of construction works at the Roghun power station. Maybe it is for the better that the absence of investors is preventing new progress in this dangerous venture.

Konstantin Parshin is a freelance journalist based in Tajikistan

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