Tajikistan Hopes Water will Power its Growth
The inscription just above a tunnel at the foot of the colossal Nurek hydropower dam in south central Tajikistan is succinct: "Water Is Life." The frigid, frothing Vakhsh River rushing under it adds a visual punctuation mark.
In Tajikistan, the source of more than 40 percent of Central Asia's water, this is no mere platitude. The mountainous state lacks the industry and natural riches that bless other former Soviet Central Asian republics. Water is one of the few resources the country possesses in great abundance.
For this reason, President Emomali Rakhmon has pinned Tajikistan's economic hopes - and perhaps even its continued political existence - on developing its hydropower potential. Three projects are either under construction or being considered, including Rogun, a gargantuan structure farther up the Vakhsh River that, as it is now envisioned, will surpass Nurek in height by more than 30 meters, or 100 feet. Tajik officials say that they have hopes of building more than 20 hydroelectric plants and dams.
But a number of sizable hurdles must first be surmounted before the plans for a great hydropower future can be realized. Tajikistan is in an earthquake zone and the dams must be built to withstand major seismic shocks. Officials are expected to conduct environmental impact studies to determine whether any flora or fauna will be threatened.
The Tajik government is also heavily in debt and must find shiploads of foreign investment to build the dams. On Wednesday, China agreed to build a $300 million hydroelectric power plant, the Nurobad-2, with a capacity of 160 to 220 megawatts. But Tajik officials say that Rogun alone will cost up to $3.2 billion.
Further afield, the region's complicated water politics, where upstream and downstream countries have diametrically opposed needs and aims, threatens to boil over.
Here, water irrigates endless fields of cotton, one of the main sources of income in this primarily agricultural land. Nurek - the world's highest dam at nearly 300 meters and a prestige project of the Soviet Union - is the difference between light and darkness, heat or no heat, for the majority of Tajikistan's seven million inhabitants, supplying nearly all the country's energy needs. It also provides cheap electricity to power the Talco aluminum plant, the republic's largest industrial enterprise.
Though for the moment it seems to be managing, Tajikistan threatens to become a failed state, say Western observers and diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the issue. The country still has not fully recovered from a devastating civil war a decade ago. State coffers are virtually empty, while the government is viewed as unable to meet basic needs.
The situation was laid bare last winter when prolonged subzero temperatures overloaded the Soviet-era electrical grid, plunging the entire country into cold and darkness. For Western officials working in Tajikistan, the emergency was a disturbing revelation of the government's dysfunction.
"The crisis was not caused by the winter weather," said an official of an American nongovernmental organization who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the news media. "The crisis was triggered by the winter weather, but caused by chronic mismanagement."
All Tajikistan's power troubles will be remedied by the dam projects, the Rakhmon government hopes. They will not only provide for all of Tajikistan's energy needs but also allow the country to export power to neighboring states.
"It's a good idea - hydropower is one of the few resources that Tajikistan can exploit," said John Morgan, an official with Usaid, the American assistance program, and a power specialist. "Power lines could go to Afghanistan and Pakistan, which are both energy-starved countries, and to the rest of Central Asia as well."
Rogun, for example, will generate about 13 billion kilowatt hours a year, more than 80 percent of the country's average consumption, officials at the construction site say. In the short term, Sangtuda-1, a hydropower plant that began operating last winter, will take on some of the country's electrical heavy lifting, though its introduction failed to resolve the electricity crisis.
But outside investors are leery. While individual investors who are more accepting of risk may materialize, international donor organizations and banks have become more circumspect with Tajikistan.
Besides the dysfunction and corruption revealed by the winter crisis, the International Monetary Fund recently announced that Tajikistan had misreported its finances six times during the last decade, an IMF record. Rakhmon has asked Tajiks to voluntarily forfeit a month's wages, or about $10 million, to finance the initial building stage.
Water issues must also be resolved. Central Asia's disagreements over how to allocate water resources resemble the Middle East's in their complexity and potential for conflict. Downstream countries, most prominently Uzbekistan, have steadfastly opposed Tajikistan's hydroelectric plans. The two countries are engaged in an undeclared cold war, western diplomatic observers say.
The Uzbeks, who need to provide for their expansive and inefficiently irrigated cotton fields, say that the dams will disturb the water cycle, withholding water in the summer when it is needed and releasing it in the winter for electricity.
Tajik authorities say that the opposite will be true and that the dams will in fact better regulate water distribution: water will be held in the winter and released in the summer.
Other analysts say that the Uzbeks, who supply electricity to Tajikistan, fear they will lose leverage over their neighbors.
"The thing is, the more dams, the more control the Tajiks will have over the water, and that's what the Uzbeks are afraid of," said a Western diplomat in the capital, Dushanbe.
Source: International Herald Tribune