John Daly, August 30, 2011
Pity poor Tajikistan.
The poorest of the former Soviet republics, after the 1991 implosion of the USSR Tajikistan slid the following year into a violent civil war, which saw Muslim fundamentalists battling the government. The conflict lasted five years and cost 50,000 dead. When the smoke cleared, what little was left of the Soviet infrastructure lay largely in shambles.
Since 1997 the government has attempted to improve the economy, but its marginal industrial base combined with rampant corruption has left the nation largely devoid of foreign direct investment, which in the last two decades has barely topped $1 billion. In contrast, Kazakhstan has received more than $120 billion and neighboring Uzbekistan, $50 billion.
Last year Tajikistan’s GDP was estimated at a modest $6.831 billion, with average wages pegged at a princely $879 per year.
So, what can Tajikistan bring to the international market?
Dushanbe’s government has decided that the answer is simple – hydroelectric power, generated by the country’s alpine lakes and rivers. The Tajik government dreams of a day not far off when its hydroelectric facilities not only meet domestic demand but will allow the nation to export electricity to neighboring energy-poor Afghanistan and Pakistan.
There is only one modest caveat to this rosy picture, in order to do so Tajikistan must complete several leftover Soviet-era hydroelectric projects, which makes downstream neighbors Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan all nervous, as they rely on regular discharges of water not only from Tajikistan but Kyrgyzstan as well to irrigate their crops.
The crown jewel of the Tajik government’s plans is to be the 3,600 megawatt Rogun dam, first proposed in 1959. Last year in an official address to the nation Tajik President Emomali Rakhmon announced that 2010 will be the year “when great resources will be mobilized” to build the Rogun dam, telling his enthralled countrymen, “The construction of this site, important for our country, has turned into the arena of labor, bravery and generosity, trials of heroism, and, more so, our national idea.” Tajik hopes were raised when in 2004 then Russian President Vladimir Putin pledged a preferential $2 billion loan to complete the construction of the Rogun power station. Unfortunately, the check was not in the mail, and Dushanbe has struggled ever since to secure funding.
The good news for the Tajik government is that it has been more successful in its construction efforts with the Sangtuda-2 220 megawatt hydroelectric cascade, scheduled to come online by the end of the year. Tajik Ministry of Energy and Industry, Makhmadamin Safarkholov judges Sangtuda to be now 94 percent complete.
The bad news is that Iranian interests will own Sangtuda-2 for the first 12 ½ years of its operation, a not unreasonable arrangement given that they funded the bulk of its construction, but still a blow to Tajik pride. When construction of Sangtuda-2 recommenced in 2006 Iran allocated $180 million and Iran’s Sangob company sweetened the deal with another $36 million.
The Tajik government’s input? A relatively modest $40 million.
A potential fly in the ointment for Tajik consumers under the arrangement is that no one knows at what price and on what terms the electricity generated by the plant is to be sold, and neither Ministry of Energy officials nor state energy distribution company Barq-i Tojik bureaucrats have been able to provide concrete data.
The lesson of all this seems to be that, in Tajikistan’s case, small is beautiful as regards power stations, even though they are far less prestigious. Since 1991, 249 small power plants have been built in Tajikistan, with another nine small power plants expected to be commissioned by the end of the year, In addition, 190 small hydroelectric power stations are scheduled to be built by 2020.
However, once again descending into the murkiness of Tajik statistics, according to Barq-i Tojik chairman Nozirzhon Yodgori the government does not yet know how much electricity they will be able to generate, because they are not part of the Barq-i Tojik system, but work independently, with estimates of the various facilities’ generation output ranging from 30 kilowatt hours to 40,000 kilowatt hours.
So, what does the future hold for Tajikistan and its dreams of electricity exports? The immense Rogun project, while very prestigious, is hobbled by a lack of funding and carries in its wake increased strife with Tajikistan’s neighbors.
Larger, free-flowing hydroelectric stations have the benefit of lower costs and not increasing regional tensions, even if they are less prestigious.
Tajikistan’s current economic situation is so dire that nearly one-third of adult males live in other Commonwealth of Independent States nations to work – no doubt they would like to think that that the remittances they send back home would allow their families to have electricity 24/7. After all, you can’t read by prestige after the sun goes down. The question is whether any of the apparatchiks in Dushanbe are listening.