by John C.K. Daly
UPI International Correspondent
Washington DC (UPI) Aug 10, 2007
Unlocking The Hydroelectric Potential Of Tajikistan
Since 1991, the world has been in a mad dash for the energy resources of the Caspian, leaving out the resource-poor mountainous eastern nation Tajikistan. Sixteen years after the collapse of communism, the former Soviet republic may have the last laugh, as it sits atop immense water resources, which if properly utilized will allow it to generate surplus energy for export and negotiate lucrative water contracts with its parched downstream neighbors.
The 1,500-mile Amu Darya (known in antiquity as the Oxus) and the 1,380-mile Syr Darya (Jaxartes), two of Central Asia's most important rivers, begin in the Pamir and Tien Shan mountain ranges at the confluence of the border between Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and China. Flowing westward to the Aral Sea, their waters are shared among Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Afghanistan, and have been a rising source of contention since 1991. The Amu Darya's headwaters in the form of the Panj River arise in Tajikistan, while the Syr Darya originates in Kyrgyzstan, where the Toktogul hydroelectric dam controls its main tributary, the Naryn.
Besides river water, Tajikistan contains many glaciers, of which the 270-square-mile Fedenko glacier is the largest in the world outside the Polar Regions.
Tajikistan is still struggling with its Soviet legacy. Soviet central planning directed by Moscow meant that Central Asian economies were roped into supplying centralized demands, often with disastrous results. Beginning with the first Soviet Five Year Plan, Central Asia was to produce cotton for the Soviet Union, with the result that by the 1980s nearly 90 percent of water use in Central Asia was directed toward agriculture, primarily cotton production; the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya supplied nearly 75 percent of the water flow, resulting in a disastrous shrinkage of the Aral Sea, an environmental catastrophe that has yet to be reversed.
Worse, Tajikistan in 1992 slid into a vicious five-year civil war between the Moscow-backed administration and a militant Islamic opposition, which resulted in 50,000 deaths and more than one-tenth of the population becoming refugees until peace was restored via a U.N.-brokered agreement.
The collapse of communism left Tajikistan and neighboring Kyrgyzstan scrambling to meet their energy needs by arranging barter arrangements with their western neighbors, where they would trade hydropower generated during the summer for coal and gas to use in the cold season. The arrangements were imperfect, however, occasionally leading Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to release water during the winter to generate electricity to make up for energy import shortfalls, flooding downstream areas in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan and causing summer irrigation droughts. The Soviet centrally planned economy left Central Asian nations with a number of mega-projects, most notably Tajikistan's massive Nurek hydroelectric facility on the Vakhsh River. Nurek, which still supplies 70 percent of Tajikistan's power, was constructed in the 1970s and 1980s.
Like the Caspian region, however, outside players have attempted to enter the market, with the United States seeing Central Asian energy flowing southward to help stabilize Afghanistan.
During the April 1-2, 2006, "Partnership, Trade, and Development in Greater Central Asia" conference in Kabul, U.S. Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs Richard Boucher said, "We are making contributions, major contributions to the electricity grid in Afghanistan because like the ring-road, we see that as a pivot point to bring electricity from the north down into the markets in the south, not only Afghanistan, but also Pakistan and onward to India.
"We are working with international financial institutions and with U.S. investors on the Afghan-Tajik links for the electricity exports and we hope that will blossom."
He told a congressional hearing later that month, "Within the next few years, we expect to see private investment lead to the establishment of a 500 kilovolt power line transmitting much-needed electricity from Central Asia across Afghanistan to Pakistan and India."
As in the Caspian, however, regional efforts were of more immediate interest in Dushanbe than vague Western promises. Last December the Tajik government began construction of the 670 MW hydroelectric Sangtuda power station project, a joint venture between the Tajik government and Russia's Unified Energy Systems Company, scheduled to become operational in 2009.
On Jan. 17 in Beijing, Sharifhon Samiyev of Barki Tochik and Cin Fan Xicjan of Sinohydro signed a construction agreement for construction of the Zeravshan (Yava) hydroelectric plant in northern Tajikistan, with an annual output of about 600 million KWH. Even more unsettling for Washington, in March Iranian company Farab announced that it had won a contract to build a 4,000 MW hydro power plant in Tajikistan, scheduled for completion in 2011.
Moscow did not have things completely its own way, however, and in February the Tajik government announced that instead of finalizing a contract with Russian Aluminum, it would instead itself complete the massive Rogun hydroelectric facility of six units of 600 megawatts each, originally begun in 1976. The Rogun facility's output along with Nurek alone will not only make Tajikistan self-sufficient in electrical production, but allow it to export power.
Tajikistan's potential for electrical exports looks bright. Besides Afghanistan, its western neighbor Uzbekistan, the most populous nation in Central Asia, generates about 48 billion KWH of electric power annually, of which hydroelectric makes up only about 10 percent. For resource-poor Tajikistan, the only major remaining question on developing its energy potential is the question of the best deals it can arrange, and Dushanbe at this point is certainly not lacking for interested parties.
Source: United Press International