Tajikistan looks to solve energy crisis with huge dam




March 23, 2010, Rayhan Demytrie



It is the Tajik government's answer to decades of energy shortages.


Rogun hydropower plant sits 110km (68 miles) east of the capital, Dushanbe, on the river Vaksh. When it is finished, the planned 335m (1,100ft) dam will be the tallest in the world.


For a mountainous country with thousands of glaciers but no hydrocarbons, harnessing the power of water is the obvious solution.


Tajikistan is the poorest country in the Central Asian region. Chronic power shortages have crippled its economy.


It has relied on an outdated Soviet system in which the Central Asian states are connected via a regional power grid.


In November 2009 Uzbekistan withdrew from the arrangement, cutting Tajikistan off from its

external source of electricity.


Now more than ever, the government is determined to ensure its energy self-sufficiency.


"In the last 10 years we've endured severe energy shortages. We put computers in classrooms but children can't use them because there is no power," Tajikistan's Prime Minister Akil Akilov told the BBC.


"The future of our economy and the answer to the country's social problems is linked to Rogun."



'National honour'


The construction of Rogun began in Soviet times but the project stalled after the collapse of communism.


To complete the first stage - producing electricity for local consumption - Tajikistan estimates it needs $800m (£534m). The overall cost of the project is up to $4bn.


With a state budget of just over $1bn, President Emomali Rahmon has appealed to the nation to buy into the project, urging every family to buy shares worth nearly $700 (£470).


Buying shares has become an act of patriotism.


"Rogun is not only a source of light, but a national honour and dignity," the president said in his address to the nation in early January.


Posters advertising Rogun and asking people to buy shares can be seen all over the country.

Schoolchildren are being taught about Rogun's importance, universities are organising rallies in support of the dam and state TV has broadcast programmes praising the project.


According to the ministry of finance, more than $170m has been raised since the campaign started in January.


But critics say it could further weaken Tajikistan's economy. In a country where 60% of the population live below the poverty line, many find it difficult to invest.


And despite the government's claim that the scheme is voluntary, there is evidence that people are being forced to buy shares.


"I went to see a doctor to get a sick note, but the doctor said I had to prove that I purchased Rogun shares before I would get served," complained one taxi driver.


Local businesses are also expected to invest large sums. A waiter in one of Dushanbe's restaurants said he had bought Rogun shares worth more than $2,000.


The lack of transparency over where the money is coming from is raising concern in the international community.


"The general extortion is a fact. From the development prospective it is making poverty worse. It is forcing everyone to be even more corrupt," a Western diplomat told the BBC.



Uzbek fears


And there is another problem - Tajikistan's western neighbour Uzbekistan strongly opposes the project.


In an open letter to the Tajik government in February, Uzbek Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev demanded that international experts be allowed to study Rogun's seismic safety and its potential environmental impact.


"The Rogun hydropower plant project was developed almost 40 years ago, it's an outdated projectů it is hard to conceive the scale of the humanitarian disaster were the dam to be breached," Mr Mirziyayev wrote.


Analysts say Uzbekistan's real concern is that Tajikistan could potentially control the flow of water. Rogun is being constructed upstream from Uzbekistan on an important river system.

And as one of the world's leading cotton producers, Uzbekistan relies on this water for irrigation.


But Tajikistan's prime minister says Uzbekistan's concerns are groundless.


"The water flow to the downstream countries during the growing season will not be affected. This reservoir will not be filled in one year. We will be doing it gradually - it will take 15 years to fill it," Mr Akilov said.


In recent weeks, both countries have engaged in an information war. The Uzbek media describe Tajikistan as inconsiderate while the Tajik press accuse the Uzbeks of interference.

This month, the World Bank said it would help Tajikistan carry out a feasibility study of Rogun. But this will take up to 18 months to complete.



'Work together'


Sitting in his overcoat in an office with no heating, Georgiy Petrov, a hydro-energy expert who planned the Rogun project in the 1970s, says Tajikistan and its neighbours should work together.


"When it was planned irrigation in downstream countries was considered. But the problems began when all these countries became independent. We have five countries and for each country national interest is a priority," Mr Petrov said.


He said that neither Tajikistan nor Kyrgyzstan - which also holds massive water resources - can develop giant hydro-electric projects on their own.


"Instead of elbowing each other the Central Asian states should work together," he said.


When the Central Asian states were part of the USSR, they exchanged water and energy resources freely. Today the distribution of resources remains one of the main sources of tension in the region.


With Rogun Tajikistan could one day export electricity to neighbouring Afghanistan, Pakistan and China.


The Tajik government says the dam will start producing electricity by 2012. It hopes the World Bank study will reassure Uzbekistan that Tajik efforts to keep the lights on will not stop the water from flowing.