March 16, 2010, Konstantin Parshin


A World Bank offer to underwrite an environmental feasibility study for the proposed Rogun hydropower project could mark a decisive moment in the Central Asian stateís efforts to become an electricity exporter.


The World Bank estimates it will take three months to select a contractor to conduct the impact study, which could then take 18 months to complete, Motu Konishi, the Bankís regional director for Central Asia, announced on March 10. "If the Rogun project proves its financial and environmental sustainability, the World Bank will provide the financial aid and support to the government of Tajikistan for the establishment of a consortium that will build this plant. The Tajik government and the World Bank will sign an appropriate memorandum on this issue," Konishi said.


Although a lot can happen in 18 months, the reaction in Dushanbe to the World Bank announcement has been buoyant. "The World Bankís statement is very weighty. It means that something will get off the ground; Tajikistan will receive new opportunities and - very probably - international support in continuing the construction of Rogun," Prof. Sabit Negmatullaev, director of Geophysical Services at the Tajik Academy of Sciences told EurasiaNet.


The bankís announcement is a very promising development, echoed Goulsara Pulatova, regional director of the UN International Strategy for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) in Central Asia. "Such a large-scale project requires concerted actions from all interested parties. And the new environmental assessment will help determine the most appropriate way to implement the project," she told EurasiaNet.


The Asian Development Bank (ADB) has come out strongly in support of Rogun since Konishiís visit. On March 15, President Imomali Rahmon met with Juan Miranda, ADB director general for Central and Western Asia.


According to Rahmonís press service, Miranda stated that the "ADB supports Tajikistanís energy policy, the basis of which is the construction of the Rogun hydropower plant." The ADB also expressed its readiness to help "the Tajik government in carrying out technical-economic and socio-environmental expertise of the Rogun [project]," local news agencies reported on March 16.


Construction at Rogun began in the 1970s, was halted by the breakup of the former Soviet Union and the Tajik civil war, commenced again with Russian investment in the mid-2000s, and stopped again in 2007 amid disagreements between Moscow and Dushanbe. Since then, Rahmon has been seeking new investors to restart the project, the completion of which would allow Tajikistan to become a net exporter of power.


Tajik efforts to keep Rogunís construction on course have generated intense opposition from downstream nations in Central Asia, especially Uzbekistan. Tashkent has long opposed the construction on the grounds it could cut water supplies and give Dushanbe undue political leverage. Tashkent has repeatedly demanded an independent party examine the potential impact of the Rogun reservoirís projected 12.5 billion cubic meters of water stored in Tajikistanís mountains. Uzbek officials have yet to publicly respond to the World Bankís Rogun announcement.


Several analysts in Dushanbe wondered whether the World Bankís financing of the study would encourage Moscow to once again become involved in the project. In recent years, Moscow has proven a wildcard on the Rogun issue. In January 2009, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev surprised Dushanbe by telling Central Asiaís upstream and downstream countries to agree together on such large projects. At the time, analysts suggested Medvedev was trying to earn points with Tashkent, but it led Rahmon to declare a go-it-alone strategy.


Rahmonís development tactics have generated some domestic discontent in recent months. In January, the Tajik government launched a campaign to sell Rogun shares to the public, but officials quickly came under criticism for reportedly employing strong-arm tactics to ensure the offeringís success. For example, government employees were reportedly forced to purchase shares, and university students were told they could not pass exams if they could not prove ownership of shares. The Tajik Finance Ministry recently announced that it had collected about $176 million from sales and private donations. Most estimates say the total cost of the 3,600-megawatt project varies from $2 billion to $4 billion. As envisioned, it would be the tallest hydropower dam in the world, at 330 meters.


Buoyed by the World Bankís initial support for Rogun, some officials in Dushanbe believe that the Rogun project may have gained critical momentum. Sayfullo Safarov, the deputy director of the presidentís Strategic Research Center, told the Asia-Plus news agency on March 10: "If any technical claims are made to Tajikistan on the results of the [World Bank] examination, it is necessary to remove them, but not to stop Rogun construction."