Tag Archives: uzbekistan

Water Conflicts: Tajikistan versus Uzbekistan

vakhsh river, Tajikistan.  image from wkipedia

Rogun is both a town [in Tajikistan], some 100km (60 miles) from the capital, Dushanbe, and a long-stalled dream: to build the world’s tallest hydropower dam.  Dirt-poor but water-rich, Tajikistan hopes to sell electricity to Afghanistan and South Asia. In theory, the dam, 335 metres high, could save the country from poverty and isolation, doubling Tajikistan’s power-generating capacity. But the project seems quixotic, if not outright delusional: it would cost up to $6 billion (GDP in 2012 was about $7.6 billion); Uzbekistan, a big neighbour, is fiercely opposed; and the investment climate is clouded by corruption.

Plans for the dam were drawn up long before the collapse of the Soviet Union, but were revived in the early 2000s as Tajikistan recovered from civil war. Each winter energy shortages shave an estimated 3% off GDP. Rogun will solve all problems, state propaganda and many Tajiks say.

But international donors struggle to trust Mr Rakhmon [Tajikistan’s president]. Two-fifths of Tajikistan’s electricity is diverted to a state-run aluminium smelter, TALCO. Each year, TALCO produces hundreds of millions of dollars in profits that are routed to a shell company in the British Virgin Islands. Mr Rakhmon personally oversees TALCO. Why does he not use that cash for his dam?

Central Asia’s energy and water resources were once run from Moscow. In summer upstream republics such as Tajikistan and neighbouring Kyrgyzstan released water from their dams to generate electricity and help irrigate downstream republics, such as Uzbekistan. So Tajikistan already boasts the world’s highest dam, the 300-metre Nurek, built in the 1970s. In winter Uzbekistan delivered gas. That deal broke down after independence. Mr Rakhmon and Uzbekistan’s Islam Karimov do not get along. It is the custom among autocrats in these parts.

Uzbekistan thinks Rogun would parch its cotton crop and give Tajikistan political leverage. In protest, Uzbekistan has halted gas sales to Tajikistan and blocked shipments of construction materials for Rogun. Mr Karimov has warned the dispute could lead to war.

Into this morass has waded the World Bank, sponsoring two three-year assessments of the project on condition that construction is suspended. When completed, probably later this year, the studies are expected to judge the project itself feasible, but to present nine other options—of differing heights and turbine capacities—that may offer better value.  But questioning the dam’s height does not go down well with Mr Rakhmon. In 2004 Russia offered to get RusAL, an aluminium giant, to build Rogun. But after RusAL said the dam should be 50 metres lower (and perhaps tried to muscle into TALCO), the president told them to leave…

Tajikistan cannot build Rogun alone. A brain drain has left it woefully ill-equipped to handle such a project. One of Rogun’s chief engineers, asked to confirm a few statistics, consults Wikipedia. The only realistic patrons for the project are outsiders who might be able to stomach the corruption, such as Russia or China. But neither wants to anger Uzbekistan, Central Asia’s most populous country, with its largest army.

Hydropower in Tajikistan: Folie de grandeur, Economist, July 27, 2013, at 36

Water, Oil and Gas, resource wars: the Stans of Central Asia

Tajikistan’s president, Emomali Rakhmon, likes things big. He has built the world’s tallest flagpole. Last year he opened the region’s largest library (with few books in it so far). But one gigantic project is proving contentious with the neighbours: building the world’s tallest hydroelectric dam.

Islam Karimov, the strongman who rules downstream Uzbekistan, says the proposed 335-metre Rogun dam, on a tributary of the Amu Darya, will give Tajikistan unfair control over water resources and endanger millions in the event of an earthquake. On September 7th, he said such projects could lead to “not just serious confrontation, but even wars”.  Mr Karimov wasn’t talking only about Tajikistan. Upstream from Uzbekistan on a tributary of the region’s other major river, the Syr Darya, Kyrgyzstan is seeking investment for a project of its own, called Kambarata. The two proposed dams (Rogun at 3.6 gigawatts and Kambarata at 1.9) would theoretically end their respective countries’ frequent power shortages and provide badly needed export earnings.

Both were conceived in the twilight of the communist era and stalled when subsidies from Moscow evaporated at independence. Soviet leaders envisioned managing the region’s water flows, energy trades and competing interests, and their Russian successors still maintain an interest. During a visit to Bishkek on September 20th, Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, promised help with Kambarata in exchange for, among other things, an extension of military-basing rights in Kyrgyzstan. Tajikistan has sought Russian help for Rogun, too. Mr Putin promised $2 billion for the dam in 2004. But that deal fell apart three years later, when the two countries could not agree about the dam’s height.

Spurring on both projects is Uzbekistan’s bad behaviour, egregious even in a tetchy region. Unlike Uzbekistan, neither Tajikistan nor Kyrgyzstan, the two poorest former Soviet republics, has reliable access to oil or gas. Uzbekistan’s Mr Karimov has a habit of changing gas prices and cutting deliveries during the coldest months. He has prevented electricity supplies to his indigent neighbours from transiting his country’s Soviet-era grid. Uzbekistan has also unilaterally closed most border checkpoints with both upstream countries, set mines along parts of the boundary with Tajikistan, and often holds up commercial traffic. When a rail bridge in southern Uzbekistan mysteriously exploded last autumn, depriving southern Tajikistan of its rail connections, few believed Uzbek claims of a terrorist attack. Indeed, rather than fix the track, the Uzbeks dismantled it. Tajikistan calls the actions a blockade.

Though it seems unlikely Mr Karimov will drive his tanks over the border just yet, shoot-outs on the disputed borders are not uncommon. All of this worries NATO officials. All three countries help supply the war in Afghanistan and will be crucial for NATO’s withdrawal.

Excerpt, Water wars in Central Asia: Dammed if they do, Economist, Sept. 29, 2012, at 44

One the international agreements between states on water and electricity exchanges, see Elli Louka International Environmental Law