Residents of Kyrgyzstan’s capital endured a teeth-shatteringly cold weekend following a malfunction at the city’s local power plant.
In additional to generating electricity, TETs, or thermal power plants, like the one in Bishkek, pump heated water into homes, but residents said that following the breakdown on January 26, the temperature of their radiators was half what it should be. The timing of the malfunction could not have been worse, as it occurred just as temperatures were dropping to a low of minus 27 degrees Celsius (-15 degrees Fahrenheit).
The worst-hit neighborhoods even experienced blackouts, meaning they could not use electrical heaters.
“The children are wearing their sweaters and have got under blankets. The radiators are like the body of a dying man — getting ever more cold,” journalist Aidai Irgebayeva wrote on her Facebook account.
There is likely to be considerable political fallout from the development as former President Almazbek Atambayev personally took part in an official ceremony to mark the completion of major modernization work at the power plant as recently as August.
“It is cold in apartments. The only place to keep warm is the kitchen, where the cooker is turned on and the children are wearing in their hats. The whole capital is freezing. I don’t understand, where are our members of parliament, where are the prosecutors?” wrote Jamal Frontbek kyzy, the well-known head of a Muslim women’s group, echoing widespread calls for delinquent officials to be punished.
Prime Minister Sapar Isakov ordered that a string of heating stations in tents be set up across Bishkek in which members of the public could get hot food. He said that those responsible for the malfunction would be identified and punished.
Speaking at a press conference, TETs director Nurlan Omurkul uulu said that he took full responsibility and that he was prepared to step down. That is not enough for local activists, who are demanding that bigger heads roll.
“We don’t need the firing of the head of the TETs, but that whichever official was in charge of the renovation face criminal charges. And that official is certainly not the head of the TETs,” independent journalist Elnura Alkanova wrote on Facebook.
Modernization of the Bishkek Thermal Power Plant was completed by a Chinese company, TBEA, at a cost of $386 million. Funding for the work was provided in the form of a low-interest loan from Export–Import Bank of China that is set for repayment by 2033.
In 2015, the Chamber of Audits revealed that it had detected a number of irregularities in the modernization operation. The company charged with the work was not selected by tender, although several other companies had hoped to win the contract. Auditors also determined that in the absence of a feasibility study, the value of the contract might have been excessively inflated and set at levels more suitable to countries where operational costs would be greater.
No officials were penalized for what appears to have been pushing through a contract mired in dubious and nontransparent practices.
The state-run company that runs Kyrgyzstan’s power plants, Electric Stations JSC, said that the accident that caused heating to fail occurred in a part of the plant that was not covered by the modernization initiative. The recently completed upgrade, they said, meant heating would be fully restored within the day.
In the event, Bishkek residents were only reporting a gradual return to heat in their homes on the evening of January 28.
Nurjamal Djanibekova is a journalist based in Bishkek.