TAJIKISTAN’S AMBITIOUS ENERGY PROJECTS CAUSE TENSIONS WITH UZBEKISTAN

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Tajikistan Neweurasia Net

Posted by Alexander (pseudonym)| October 23rd, 2006

Link: http://tajikistan.neweurasia.net/?p=124

Energy politics is gradually becoming a major element of Central Asian politics. With Tajikistan seeking to become a leading power exporter, energy politics can cause tensions with Uzbekistan.

Central Asia’s Water Disputes

While Central Asia’s oil and gas reserves have not attracted international attention until recently, the region’s abundant water resources have been an important resource – and often a source of conflict– in this arid area throughout its history.

More than 90 percent of the region’s water resources are concentrated in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. These upstream states control the heads of Central Asia’s major rivers. However, most of the region’s water is consumed by the downstream countries of Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, with the latter consuming more than half of it.

Poorly endowed with oil and gas and facing energy deficit, the two upstream states have always sought recognition of water as a commodity that should be bartered against their neighbors’ coal and gas. But Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan maintain that water flows across boundaries and is thus a shared rather than private good.

In the 1990s, water-related disputes pervaded relations in the region. The source of tension was the downstream states’ growing consumption of water, while the upstream states sought to withhold water in warmer months to generate much of their power needs in autumn and winter. Despite Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan’s repeated calls to work out a comprehensive water use mechanism involving adequate compensation for the upstream states’ energy losses, their neighbors in the region opted for preserving the status quo.

Solution for Tajikistan

After failing to make Uzbekistan either compensate for seasonal energy losses or barter water for power, Tajikistan decided to go unilateral and revitalize Soviet hydropower projects.

Tajikistan’s rivers possess enormous energy resources. Home to over a half of the Central Asia’ total hydropower potential, Tajikistan still faces acute shortage of electricity and has to cover the shortfall with energy imports from Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.

Tajik government’s new strategy aims to make Tajikistan a major exporter of hydropower by finishing the stalled Soviet power projects and building newer ones. Over the last several years, Tajikistan has managed to attract foreign investors to its energy sector. In 2004, RUSAL, Russia’s world-class aluminium producer signed a deal under which it will finish the Rogun power station on the Vakhsh River. Later that year, Russia’s company United Energy Systems started constructing Sangtuda-1, while Iran started construction of Sangtuda-2 power station, both downstream the Vakhsh River.

Following the start-off of the ambitious projects, China, Japan, United States, some European states and Kazakhstan expressed their interest in investing in Tajikistan’s energy sector. Several smaller-size power stations are now constructed throughout Tajikistan.

Bringing the power stations currently under construction into operation will allow Tajikistan meeting the domestic demands and exporting the excess electricity to neighboring markets. In February 2006, Tajikistan, Iran and Afghanistan signed a deal under which they will build a power line from Rogun and other power stations on the Vakhsh River to Afghanistan. Iran, Pakistan, India and eventually China are also expected to consume Tajik electricity in the future.

Construction of all projected hydropower plants, as well as economic benefits of exporting the surplus energy and expanding energy-consuming aluminium production – the main source of Tajikistan’s revenues so far – present a unique chance for impoverished Tajikistan to solve its energy and economic problems at a stroke.

Impact on Tajik-Uzbek Relations

Tajikistan’s ambitious energy plans have immediately caused serious tensions with its water-starved neighbor. Uzbek government is equally displeased with the prospects of altered status quo in the region’s water politics and emergence of a stronger in both economic and strategic sense Tajikistan.

Tajikistan’s power projects aim not only to make the country a leading energy exporter, but also to secure a greater say for it in Central Asia’s politics. When finished, Rogun, Sangtuda-1 and Sangtuda-2 power stations, together with the currently operating giant Nurek, Baipaza and several smaller size projected power stations – all on the Vakhsh River – will allow for long-term control and manipulation of the flow of the Vakhsh. This river is a major tributary of the Amu Darya, one of the two great rivers providing Uzbekistan with water.

Currently Tajikistan is seeking to attract investors to an even larger project, the Dashtijum hydropower station on the Panj River – another tributary of the Amu Darya – and refurbish the Kayrakkum power station on the Syr Darya, the second major river flowing to Uzbekistan.

Together with the projected several smaller-size power stations on the Zerafshan – another river flowing into Uzbekistan – these projects produce a nightmare for Tashkent.

With a key to Uzbekistan’s water supply, Tajikistan will gain a significant leverage over the Uzbek economic and domestic affairs. This is something that neither Uzbekistan’s national security agenda, nor Islam Karimov’s authoritarian mentality can tolerate.

Development of energy sector will also have an enormous positive impact on Tajikistan’s economy. The sector will create many jobs and provide cheap electricity for the domestic industries. The country will no longer need to import power from neighbor states and will secure a stable flow of revenues from exporting the surplus power to other markets. Cheap hydropower and increasing revenues will allow expanding aluminium and cement production. As part of its two billion US dollar investment package, RUSAL plans to open new production units at Tajikistan’s huge Tursunzade aluminium plant, modernize the plant and build a new plant at Shaartuz in southern Tajikistan. Add to this Tajikistan’s intentions to use the reservoirs created by Tajikistan’s dams to irrigate vast areas of land, and the economic benefits to Tajikistan are obvious.

Having an economically strong nation on its borders is another thing Uzbekistan hates to allow and tries to prevent. It was not until RUSAL announced its plans to modernize the Tursunzade plant and build a new one that Uzbekistan – not previously noted as an advocate of environment – launched a massive media campaign accusing Tajik aluminium industry of causing damage to the region’s environment.

Moreover, Tajikistan’s expected economic boom is perceived as humiliation by president Islam Karimov, known to have tense personal relationships with president Emomali Rakhmonov.

Dushanbe’s hydropower plans have thus created potentially volatile water security environment in the region. Aware of Uzbekistan’s sensitivity towards even minor curbs of trans-boundary rivers, experts suggest that water in Tajik-Uzbek relations has been elevated from a political dispute to a potential cause of conflict.

It is certain that Tashkent will now take steps to hinder implementation of Tajikistan’s projects or at least seriously curb their benefits.

These steps have already been taken with generally deteriorating Tajik-Uzbek relations and a growing flow of accusations and counter-accusations serving as the background.

Many experts and observers suggest that Tajikistan’s ongoing disagreement with RUSAL over the height and type of Rogun dam has been caused by Tashkent’s interference. In particular, RUSAL suggested building a 280-meter-high dam instead of the projected 335-meter-high one immediately after its head Oleg Deripaska’s meeting with Islam Karimov, following Tashkent’s geopolitical shift towards closer relations with Russia.

Other measures will certainly follow. However, Tashkent will not use threat of force against Tajikistan, as it did in the 1990s. Russia, China, United States and other external powers interested in the stable development of the broader region will not allow it doing so. Moreover, aggravating tensions will only add to Tajikistan’s firm resolve to secure strategic advantages over its unfriendly neighbor.

In this situation Tashkent will have to admit that the only rational avenue for it to follow is cooperation and compromise in managing and sharing the region’s transnational water resources. This approach will be more than welcomed by Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, advocates for collective water management, and Kazakhstan, determined to foster closer cooperation in the region.

The fundamental issue of water – once a major source of tension in Tajik-Uzbek relations – can thus lead to an open region-wide dialogue, capable of managing other deep-seated political differences. A mechanism for such dialogue can be found in a durable but unsuccessful so far idea of Central Asia’s Water and Energy Consortium.