Over three months after the UN Conference on Freshwater in Dushanbe, water-rich, energy-poor Tajikistan is struggling to keep its ambitious hydropower plans afloat. As winter's routine electricity outages strike Dushanbe, Tajik President Imomali Rahmonov is seeking US financial assistance for the country's hydroelectric projects.
US Ambassador Richard Hoagland has expressed cautious support for the request, stating at a late November meeting with the Tajik president that "the time has come to turn to providing direct economic aid to promote the country's development," ITAR-TASS reported. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive].
For a cash-strapped country with an outstanding energy debt of $51 million, the possibility of increased US support could prove vital in overcoming the country's existing energy woes. Though Tajikistan supplies more than half of Central Asia's water and ranks as the world's third largest hydropower producer (after the United States and Russia), it has realized few of the benefits of its water wealth.
According to the US Department of Energy, Tajikistan could produce more than 300 billion kilowatt hours of electricity per year. Yet, handicapped by underdeveloped or malfunctioning Soviet-era hydropower stations, the country realizes only 5 percent of that potential, according to Sabit Negmatullayev of the Tajik National Academy of Sciences. Of the 4.4 gigawatts of electricity Tajikistan generates each year, 40 percent goes to feed its aluminum industry.
To meet its demand for power, Tajikistan, like neighbor Kyrgyzstan, barters with water, receiving gas in the winter and coal in the summer from Uzbekistan. But supplies are erratic: Uzbekistan demands pre-payment for gas and often stops deliveries without notification. Consequently, outages in Tajikistan's electricity grid and heating system -- especially during winter -- are the norm. Hit by an early snow storm this November, Dushanbe experienced disruptions with municipal transport, telephone service and electricity supplies.
Even with outside aid, three of Tajikistan's domestic hydropower mega-projects face majors challenges. The Rogun reservoir, situated on the Vaksh River, roughly 60 miles northeast of Dushanbe, has been in the works since Soviet times. It was envisioned as one of the biggest hydropower plants in the world with a potential power supply that would satisfy the needs of all of Soviet Central Asia. But the Tajik civil war and economic collapse of the 1990s put Rogun's construction plans on hold. Experts from international financial institutions now say that further investment is not feasible without an operation plan that involves all of Tajikistan's neighbors -- a tall order in a region known for sometimes heated disputes of water usage.
Further downstream on the Vaksh, at the Nurek reservoir, the prospects are little brighter. Boasting the world's highest dam (at 984 ft.), Nurek is Central Asia's largest power station. But it is in need of repairs. Outdoor switchboards and high voltage pylon platforms have caved in, and must be renovated.
That leaves earthquake-prone Lake Sarez, tucked away in the remote Pamir Mountains region of Gorno-Badakshan in southeastern Tajikistan. Formed after an earthquake in 1911, Sarez today contains 600,349 cubic feet of water enough, according to President Rahmonov, "to provide the world's entire population with the purest water for one year." A hydropower station at Sarez could potentially bring electricity to Gorno-Badakshan (most villages in the region now go without) and channel its surplus to provinces in nearby Afghanistan.
Some economists worry about the costs of building a power station. At a price tag of $310 million, the project would amount to 62 percent of Tajkistan's official revenue for 2002. More than $90 million alone would be needed for construction of a road through the surrounding 84-mile-long Bartang Valley to access the lake's natural dam at Usoi.
Sarez's problems are not limited to cost. Many worry about safety. The earthquake-prone lake itself is growing by four to eight inches per year, according to geophysicists associated with the Lake Sarez Risk Mitigation Project, a body formed three years ago to plan for flooding contingencies in the lake's region. If the Usoi dam breaks, a massive landslide of water, debris and sediment could pour down the Bartang, Pyanj and Amu Darya rivers. The impact of such an event would be felt all across the region. In Tajikistan alone, an estimated 130,000 inhabitants of villages downriver from the lake would be at risk.
The landslide could also bring over 176 million cubic feet of mud to form a dam that would cut off additional hydropower plants on the Vaksh River, according to project members. Pamir Energy, a company formed in late 2002 by the World Bank's Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development and the International Finance Corporation, has already set aside $26 million for completion of Soviet-era power plants on the river.
For now, clear-cut solutions to how to bring a stable flow of electricity from Sarez to the inhabitants of Gorno-Bardakshan are few. At a November 14-15 meeting, academician Sabit Negmatullayev, chairman of the project's International Panel of Experts, maintained that the Usoi dam was sufficient to restrain Sarez's waters. Other experts suggested rerouting the Kokubeil river that feeds the lake or decreasing the lake's water level. Both solutions would require the construction of another $90 million road to the site.
Some specialists say that the construction of small hydropower plants in canyons and valleys might be the most viable option for bringing electricity to the power-poor region.
But though the ultimate success of these hydropower projects may remain in doubt, their potential has already attracted potential foreign clients. Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan have all expressed interest in importing electricity from Tajikistan, the Tajik Ministry of Energy told RFE/RL in April 2003, keeping official hopes alive that Tajikistan may someday finally go from energy importer to exporter.
Konstantin Parshin is a freelance journalist based in Dushanbe.