An intense phase of cold weather in Kazakhstan has caused damage to a gas pipeline and knocked heating and power stations offline across at least eight cities, once again exposing the creaking condition of much of the country’s key utility infrastructure.
State news agency Kazinform reported on December 13 that damage sustained by a gas pipeline in the southern Zhambyl region left at least 1,200 homes without the fuel. A similar incident on the same section of pipeline, which has been in operation since 1991, reportedly occurred last winter.
Two days prior to that incident, freezing temperatures knocked out heat and power stations in multiple cities across Kazakhstan. These included Ekibastuz, where residents were last year left without heat for a week amid -30 degree Celsius conditions due to an accident at a thermal power station.
In Saran, a town in the central Karaganda region, people were confined indoors and compelled to layer up in multiple items of clothing as radiators were not working. Even journalists from the state-run and usually very on-message broadcaster Khabar had to report that their workplace in the capital, Astana, was decidedly chilly.
Officials have sought to downplay the significance of the problem. An Energy Ministry representative, Ilya Rozhkov, said in a video released on December 11 that 146 billion tenge ($320 million) had been allocated earlier in the year for repairing heating and energy facilities to prepare for the heating season.
He labeled the incidents as “technological disruptions,” without specifying further.
Meanwhile, First Deputy Prime Minister Roman Sklyar advised freezing citizens not to just blame the heat and power stations but to think instead about changing window seals and to flush their radiators.
Prime Minister Alihan Smailov was more candid about the problems earlier this year. In September, he gave officials a two-week deadline to fix any outstanding technical deficiencies.
Members of the Majilis, the lower house of parliament, are demanding explanations from the government. During a session on December 13, they expressed their dissatisfaction, stating that inquiries put to the Cabinet about addressing the causes of accidents and preventing such occurrences in future were met with assurances that all necessary measures were being adopted.
“Unfortunately, this optimism hasn't panned out, even as the freezing temperatures have just begun. Now the entire country anxiously awaits the continuation of the heating season," Yerlan Barlybayev said.
Accidents at various heat and power stations during winter occur almost yearly in Kazakhstan due to the aging infrastructure, around 80 percent of which is estimated to be in an advanced state of deterioration. The proportion of the network being upgraded, around 5-7 percent, is nowhere near enough, another lawmaker, Yerlan Sairov, said at the same Majilis session.
Yulia Kuchinskaya, a Majilis member, said she believes another serious issue lies in the severe shortage of technical specialists leaving the industry due to low wages.
Political analyst Gaziz Abishev, wrote on his Telegram channel that he sees a key factor as the misallocation of money that should be spent on infrastructure on matters of lesser priority. He expressed skepticism that the recent blackouts would spur officials into swiftly resolving the problems, however.
“No fundamental conclusions will be drawn,” Abishev concluded.
Almaz Kumenov is an Almaty-based journalist.