Kyrgyz hydropower hopes face obstacles

September 1, 2010, Martin Sieff

It appeared to be an occasion for rejoicing, but the opening of the first unit of Kyrgyzstan’s first hydro-electric power project since independence Wednesday may not prove as beneficial as the country hopes.

Kyrgyz President Roza Otunbayeva attended the opening of the $200 million Karambata-2 hydroelectric power station on Kyrgyzstan’s Naryn River. But the project looks certain to enrage neighboring Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, the far more prosperous, powerful and stable neighbors whose support the weak Kyrgyz government needs to retain.

Even Russia, who financed the project, is angry at the Kyrgyz leaders. The Kremlin gave funding for the project to previous Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev on the tacit but well-understood condition that he evict the United States from the Manas Air Base near Bishkek. But both Bakiev and his successor Otunbayeva have allowed the U.S. Air Force to continue operating there.

Otunbayeva, who took power on April 8, the day after nationwide protests toppled Bakiev, inherited Kararmbata-2 from her predecessor. She has eagerly embraced the project.

Given the country’s recent violence and the prospect of a food shortage resulting from the regional drought, it is understandable Otunbayeva would publicize any sign of growth and recovery she could get.

“We will be able to live well in both winter and the summer, and are increasing our export potential. The wasteful discharge of water in the summer will be stopped,” Otunbayeva stated at the opening ceremony, according to Reuters.

But the successful operation of Karambata-2 presupposes normal rainfall in the region and that is now highly unlikely, given the record high temperatures over the summer, the hottest since records were first kept.

The heat wave and drought also increase the need for Kazakhstan to use more irrigation water to irrigate its wheat and other grains, and it is the food producer of last resort on which the other Central Asian nations rely in times of crisis. Kazakh planners fear the waters diverted on the Naryn to feed the new Karambata-2 dam may critically reduce their available water resources.

The Uzbeks have the same fear - and Tajikistan has suffered the results.

Anger at Tajik hydro projects has led Uzbekistan to launch what at times amounts to a near-full closing of the border for rail traffic carrying cargo imports into Tajikistan. This has hurt the Tajik economy, and the damage it has caused far outweighs the benefits Tajikistan has so far received from its hydro-electric projects.

Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are the two smallest (in terms of population) and most resource-poor of the five Central Asian nations. Unlike Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, they do not share in the near-limitless oil and natural gas reserves of the Caspian Basin. Previous governments in both countries have seen hydroelectric power projects as their answer to this energy shortfall.

But above all else, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan need to make themselves stable and useful economic partners to their neighbors, in order to woo energy aid and cooperation from them.

Also, the Kyrgyz and Tajik policymaking elites are far less educated or exposed to the modern world than those of the other three “Stans,” including previously isolated Turkmenistan, which is now successfully courting billions of dollars of international investment.

Successive Kyrgyz and Tajik governments have retained the Soviet era romantic obsession with constructing giant dams to generate electricity. Yet this policy has yet to produce positive results in the modern energy environment.

The Karambata-2 hydro project will have a capacity to produce between 500 and 700 million kilowatt hours of electricity each year. That is about 5 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s current total electrical generating capacity of 14 billion kilowatt hours.

Otunbayeva’s government is currently clutching at straws to deliver good news to her embattled people. Karambata-2 is more than a straw. But it isn’t the miracle she was looking for either.