What's more valuable in Central Asia, natural gas or water? Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan may soon find out. A recent Uzbek move to cut gas supplies has many Kyrgyz worrying about how to stay warm this winter. But experts say the gas cut-off may end up being counterproductive for Tashkent because it will encourage Kyrgyzstan to develop its hydro-power generating capacity. That would be a development which potentially causes a significant reduction in the volume of water flowing into Uzbekistan.
Citing late payments and arrears of $19 million, the state-owned Uztransgaz cut natural gas supplies to southern Kyrgyzstan on September 24. At the same time, Uztransgaz reduced gas delivery to the northern parts of the country by 70 percent. Salamat Aitikeev, the head of Kyrgyzgaz, a government agency in charge of the country's gas sector, told journalists on October 5 that Uzbek authorities would resume gas delivery only after Kyrgyzstan pays off its $19 million debt in its entirety.
Observers note that neither side is blameless in the latest energy spat. "You need to pay your bills on time. If you don't pay, you don't get service," a Tashkent-based journalist who works for an Uzbek state-run television outlet told EurasiaNet on condition of anonymity. Tashkent is pursuing purely economic goals, he insisted.
Nevertheless, the timing of the cut-off, coming as temperatures start to drop in Central Asia, has prompted speculation about an Uzbek ulterior motive. Some experts view the gas embargo as punishment for Bishkek's recent decision to consider opening another Russian military base near the countries' shared border in the Ferghana Valley. Moreover, this year Uzbekistan has vociferously opposed Bishkek's intention to develop the Kambarata hydropower station. The chief worry in Tashkent is that the opening of upstream hydropower plants will end up depriving of water Uzbekistan's vast agricultural sector.
In perhaps the most inflammatory response from the Kyrgyz side thus far, Kyrgyz MP Ziyadin Jamaldinov appeared to justify those fears, telling an October 8 parliamentary session that Kyrgyzstan should retaliate. "We must stop fully the delivery of water to Uzbekistan during the vegetation period," Jamaldinov said in widely distributed comments.
Spite aside, some Kyrgyz experts speculate their country may be forced to release large volumes of water from reservoirs to simply generate enough electricity this winter. As a result, downstream areas of Uzbekistan could experience harmful flooding, and, next growing season, Uzbek farmers could find themselves without sufficient water to meet irrigation needs.
The gas games appear to be justifying Bishkek's contention that the country needs more hydropower plants. At a September 29 meeting with their Russian counterparts, Kyrgyz lawmakers called on Moscow to speed up the financing of the Kambarata hydropower plant.
According to Kyrgyzgaz's Aitikeev, out of $19 million that Kyrgyzstan owes to Uztransgaz, about $5 million is from the unpaid bills of private consumers. The bulk of the debt belongs to Elektricheskie Stantsii, a government-subsidized electricity company. Aitikeev said that efforts to force Elektricheskie Stantsii to pay its bills are complicated because under its legal arrangement, the company cannot be ordered to pay its debts. So far, Kyrgyzgaz has repaid about $5 million to Uzbekistan, but it lacks funds to repay the full amount, covering debt accumulated since January 2009.
Aitikeev suggested on September 28 that one solution might be for the Kyrgyz government to loan Elektricheskie Stantsii the money.
Kyrgyzstan's aging infrastructure is also a factor. According to Kyrgyzgaz, the country has lost 53 million cubic meters of gas, or roughly 25 percent of its overall imports, this year due to holes and faulty pipelines.
Residents in southern Kyrgyzstan are growing agitated over the unreliable energy supply. Compounding their problems, Kyrgyz authorities introduced rotating brownouts on October 1 to conserve electricity for the upcoming winter. "We don't have gas. And now they are cutting off electricity. It makes life difficult," one Osh resident complained.
As the crisis unfolds, many are relying on electric stoves and liquefied gas to prepare meals. But even those solutions will not suffice once winter sets in. In winter, with water reservoirs low, the country relies on natural gas to produce heat. Though rural residents can stock up on coal and dried animal dung to heat their homes, urban dwellers in centrally heated apartment blocks have fewer options.
Osh officials are urging residents to take matters into their own hands. In early October, the Osh mayor's office created a taskforce to collect debts from private homes. By October 11, the office had collected 6 million soms, or $136,000.
In a separate move, in early October Uzbekistan decided to withdraw from the Central Asian Unified Grid System, a mechanism that was set up by the five Central Asian republics in 2001 to coordinate energy swaps and deliveries. Uzbekistan's departure from this system is expected to hurt the efficiency of regional electricity distribution, potentially leading to more waste in isolated power-strapped countries such as Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
In response, President Kurmanbek Bakiyev signed an agreement with Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev under which Kazakhstan will provide $25 million as an advance payment for Kyrgyz electricity supplies in winter. However, it is not clear when the funds will arrive and whether Bishkek will use the money to repay the Uzbek debt.
Alisher Khamidov is a freelance journalist based in South Kyrgyzstan.