Tajikistan power dam to sweep away ancient villages


September 21, 2010, Akbar Borisov


As Dushanbe is pursuing the completion of a mega-hydroelectric powerplant as the panacea to the country’s economic and energy needs, the people set to be displaced by the dam see no short-term relief of poverty.

Life among the tumble-down mud brick shacks and orchards of Tajikistan's tiny village of Chorsada has changed little over the past 100 years, residents say.

The Soviet Union came and went – leaving little more in its wake than a few hours of electricity a day carried along ageing power lines – but residents still tend their sheep and gardens as their ancestors did before them.

Not for much longer: a massive hydro-electric power plant will flood Chorsada and dozens of other villages in 2014, sweeping away ancient villages and a traditional way of life.

The government has begun forcibly resettling tens of thousands of residents who are angry, confused and fearful about the looming change.

"How we'll scrape together a life in this new place only Allah knows," said a wizened village elder who, like many interviewed about the controversial resettlement program, declined to give his name.

"I received 3,000 somoni ($685) but I don't know if this is compensation for my old home or support to start building a new one," said a 43-year-old villager. "And will I get compensation for my fruit trees?"

"How can a house be built with this amount of money? I have to hire builders and the prices of cement, boards, beams and fittings have all jumped and become so expensive," he said woefully.

A deeply impoverished nation of 7.5 million, Tajikistan has struggled to meet even the basic energy requirements of its mostly rural population and few industries.

Lacking the fossil fuel wealth of its neighbors, the Central Asian state has been forced to ration electricity in winter even in the capital – and cuts power to one hour a day or less in some villages.

Building the countries future on hydroelectric power

Enter the gigantic Soviet-era Roghun dam project, which Dushanbe hopes will not only resolve its energy crisis but allow it to sell output to Afghanistan and Pakistan, boosting its regional influence.

At least 20,000 people will be resettled from the area and given small plots of land nearer to the capital and a small financial compensation, according to Tajikistan's Labor Ministry.

It will be a huge upheaval for this remote region, already devastated by the civil war that followed the Soviet collapse two decades ago, where people still heat their homes with dried animal dung and survive on their sheep herds.

"There still isn't anything in this new place where we're supposed to live," said an elderly man.

"It's closer to the capital but we'll have to start life completely anew in our old age – build a house, plant trees, kitchen gardens; and that's if there's even enough land for it."

Farmer Mukhtor Kabuto, 70, said his new plot will be smaller than the one he has in Chorsada, which is around 100 kilometers from Dushanbe but can only be reached by a punishing drive along a mountain track strewn with boulders.

"We have great pastures for cows, orchards and area to grow wheat and potatoes. For all of this, I've been given just three hectares of land," he says, tugging gently on his long gray beard.

Neighboring Uzbekistan has also complained about the dam, fearing it will cut the water supply for its cotton fields and inflict environmental damage.

Undeterred, Tajikistan secured long-sought funding for the project in a domestic share offering earlier this year and quickly began resettling villagers from areas that will be flooded.

Although many villagers have legitimate complaints about the destruction of their traditional way of life, the overall benefits to the struggling country outweigh the personal losses, said Dushanbe-based economist Fariz Sayidov.

"The Roghun project means the future energy independence of all Tajikistan," he said.

"And while this began with moving these families who were too close to the dam, it will end with colossal economic benefits for the country, especially for those who have for many years lacked power, especially in winter."