David Trilling, Mar 13, 2009

As another winter of power shortages draws to a close in Tajikistan, the long-planned Rogun dam is a hot topic among Tajiks. But one countryís blessing is anotherís bane in Central Asia, and the dam project remains a source of acrimony.

Strict electricity rationing has been in effect in Tajikistan since January, due to a dispute with neighboring Uzbekistan that blocked the import of Turkmen power. At the end of February, villagers a mere thirty minutes from the capital told EurasiaNet they had not had power in three months. But no matter how bad it got this winter, everyone agreed the situation was "better than last year." Though electricity imports resumed on February 27, Tajiks see the Rogun hydropower dam as the best long-term solution to their perennial power woes.

For residents of the eponymous town built around Rogun, 70 miles east of Dushanbe, the planned 3,600-megawatt plant is a source of pride. Despite having little power and no gas now, they are excited to be involved in constructing Tajikistanís future. Rogun, they say, will provide ample electricity for export, and thus provide the hard currency that can help dig Tajikistan out of its deep economic hole.

Work on Rogun continues, although at a snailís pace. The project will need billions in additional investment before the light at the end of the projectís long tunnel becomes visible. Tajik leaders thought they had found the needed investment after they signed an agreement in 2004 with the Russian conglomerate Rusal. But mutual differences led to the dissolution of that deal.

Aslio Watanov, 71, has worked on Rogun since its inception. He started by helping construct the flats that would someday house the thousands of workers and engineers from around the Soviet Union. "Geologists came here in 1961. There was not a road or any infrastructure. They started from scratch. I have worked here 42 years," he said.

"The hydropower station is very important for Tajikistan. If it is built, we will have electricity, we will have jobs, it will bring many opportunities," he said. To point out that many Tajiks are now grappling with hard times, he pointed out that his own pension amounts to a mere 60 somoni per month (about $16).

Though the town was designed for 8,000 workers and their families, the project employs 3,000 at the moment, says Faruddin, a young bookkeeper there.

A self-proclaimed patriot, Faruddin gestures to the muddy valley under his home in Rogun. "We [in Tajikistan] only have water. Itís our only energy resource to help our economy grow. Almost 60 percent of water in Central Asia comes from Tajikistan," he said over the steady drone of massive dump trucks lumbering below.

The completed dam would be the tallest in the world, at 335 meters high and 1,500 wide. It would take the Vakhsh River seven to 12 years to fill the 17 billion cubic meter reservoir, say project officials.

That basin will drown the hamlet of Sicherogh upstream. But despite the prospect of losing their homes to the reservoir, hamlet residents, like Sarboz, see the dam as essential for the economic salvation of their homeland. "It will give us electricity," Sarboz said, adding that Sicherogh -- which means "Thirty Lamps" in Tajik -- had not had power for months. He does not mind moving, he says. But of the governmentís promises, he is concerned: "The government says it will provide us with houses. We live five families per house. Will it provide enough?"

Tajiks may see Rogun as a matter of survival, but the project is generating concern and controversy in downstream Uzbekistan. Tashkent fears the dam would limit the amount of water available for irrigation. The project began in 1976 when the countries were part of the Soviet Union and the region was on an integrated electrical grid. After independence in 1991, financial problems and a civil war in Tajikistan caused work to stall on the project. Floods washed away foundations.

Construction has never stopped, officials insist. Last year the Tajik government spent $50 million dollars on the project. Dushanbe will spend approximately $200 million in 2009, according to Abdullo Kurbonov, head of energy policy at the Energy Ministry. Final cost estimates range between $2 billion and $6 billion.

Residual hopes for Russian support faded in January when Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, visiting Tashkent, gave his tacit support to the Uzbek position. Medvedev told Uzbek President Islam Karimov he would only support the project if all countries in the region agreed. Nevertheless, in late February, Tajik President Imomali Rahmon traveled to Moscow with the apparent expectation that Russia would offer some sort of Rogun-construction-assistance plan. To the profound disappointment of many Tajiks, however, no concrete Russian offer of assistance was forthcoming.

Around the same time as Rahmonís Moscow trip, Karimov appeared to soften his opposition to Rogun, and went so far as to suggest Uzbekistan could invest in the project. But there was a big caveat to the offer: Tashkent would invest only if an independent assessment concluded that the project would not seriously alter water flows into Uzbekistan. International analysts doubt such a study would ever meet Tashkentís criteria.

The Rogun project remains open for investors, says Kurbonov. "I welcome everyone who wants to take part in Tajikistanís hydropower projects whether it is Uzbekistan or any other country." Iran, a cultural cousin to Persian-speaking Tajikistan, has expressed interest in the project. Others mention neighboring China, which is already building a smaller hydropower plant here. Pakistan and Afghanistan hope surplus energy will be diverted in their direction.

International investment might be hampered by the secrecy surrounding the project, and Tajikistanís historical lack of transparency. Some government officials are testy about the project.

Yet there is a broad desire to finish the project among residents of Dushanbe. Even with the recent resumption of power imports, it is unclear how Tajiks will light their homes in the coming months. The reservoir at the 2,700-megawatt Nurek hydropower station, vital for the summer ahead, is "very close to dead level," said an international official speaking on condition of anonymity. The official expressed concern that the reservoirís water level will remain so low that it will be difficult to produce power next season and will contribute to ongoing energy shortages.

For the moment, the lights are flickering on in Dushanbe, hastened by a wetter than normal spring. One might conclude someone has been doing a rain dance. Because after a month where officials were expecting a sudden, sustained nation-wide blackout, it looks like Tajikistan has squeezed through another winter.