Brutal winter weather in the late 2000s delivered a knockout blow to Central Asia’s unified power grid. Now, almost a decade later, tentative efforts are underway to promote a comeback of the network.
Tajikistan is the Central Asian state currently most interested in reviving the grid. Back in 2007, it was the worst prepared state in the region to handle the frigid winter. Unable to generate sufficient electricity for heating, lots of Tajiks were forced to shiver through the season in the dark.
Two years later, when another harsh winter hit, authorities in Dushanbe took action, recalled energy expert Kamoliddin Sirozhidinov. Without seeking permission, Tajikistan drew more than its allocated share from Central Asia’s then-unified power system — a decades-old electricity grid, legacy of Communist central planning, linking more than 80 power stations across the region’s former Soviet republics.
“This brought about a power system failure, as a result of which Tajikistan and the Surkhandarya region [in southern] Uzbekistan completely lost electricity. And this happened early in the morning,” Sirozhidinov said. “As a result of that, these countries withdrew from the system that same year and built power lines to create connections within their own territory.”
In addition to pulling out of the system, Uzbekistan stopped delivering electricity to Tajikistan altogether. It also announced that it would hike transit fees for power to Tajikistan.
This episode spelled the beginning of the end for a teetering arrangement that had been in place since the 1970s, under which republics rich in hydropower resources agreed to supply neighbors at periods of high production and then later receive electricity in return from republics whose power generation relied primarily on fossil fuels, such as coal and gas.
The reasons for why the unified energy system collapsed are, in fact, even more complicated and knotty than this potted history suggests. But at the heart of the problem is a legacy of distrust among regional leaders, and an aspiration by many of the countries to be fully self-reliant.
Independence has come at a cost, however. Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, for instance, are at times forced to release such large amounts of water in winter to generate electricity that irrigation water runs short in the spring and summer, thereby crimping the potential of the agricultural sector.
This kind of chain reaction has left the biggest impact on Tajikistan. Because Uzbekistan has declined to sell Tajikistan gas and electricity, power shortages are chronic in the winter. In the regions, for lack of any other source of heating, villagers chop down trees for their wood-burning stoves.
According to official data, since the start of the 1990s, some 700,000 hectares of forest have been felled in Tajikistan. By way of context, where forests covered around one-fifth of the country’s territory at the time of independence, that has now dropped to just 3 percent. Landslides, mudslides, soil erosion and flooding are among the most visible and recurrent consequences.
Taking these and other correlated problems into account, organizations like the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank have for many years lobbied for governments to take energy infrastructure integration more seriously.
Finally, in mid-May this year, representatives from the state energy companies of Central Asia met in the capital of Kazakhstan, Astana, to discuss reviving the unified energy grid.
In an official statement, the head of Barki Tojik, Tajikistan’s state electricity company, Mirzo Ismoilzoda, said that if all the necessary paperwork is done, the grid could resume functioning within a couple of years. It was a speculative and optimistic projection, but the fact the conversation is even taking place is meaningful.
Tajikistan is particularly eager to see this happen, since it sees export of summer electricity as a potentially valuable source of funds. In 2016, Barki Tojik exported 1.3 billion kilowatt hours, almost all of it to Afghanistan.
Reviving the regional energy grid would only solve some of the problems, said Sirozhidinov. “In some cities and districts of the country, we have aging equipment that was installed in the 1960s,” he said. “If we give them [Tajik citizens] electricity without interruption, they will stop using their [wood] stoves. And if all families behave like that then the transformers won’t be able to support the demand.”
In Soviet times, Tajikistan had steady supplies of gas and coal, which meant that households did not pin all their requirements on electricity.
To avoid a meltdown of the electricity distribution system, upgrades are needed, Sirozhidinov said. The government must also create a centralized power dispatching node that will keep tabs on how much electricity is being used and where, he said.
Andrei Zakhvatov, an expert on electricity systems in Central Asia, said that Tajikistan is not alone in needing the resurrection of the regional grid.
“Growing populations need more jobs, and development of industry is occurring across all Central Asia. If Tajikistan is able to export cheap electricity to Uzbekistan in summer, then what sense does it makes for Uzbekistan to refuse? You could say the same for cooperation between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan,” Zakhvatov said.
It needs saying that if any of this has been made possible, it is likely the result of the markedly conciliatory rhetoric coming from Uzbekistan’s new president, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who has discarded the hostile neighborhood policy pursued by his predecessor, the late Islam Karimov. Uzbekistan’s disavowal of its role as spoiler has reached such a point that when Mirziyoyev visited Turkmenistan in March, he brought up the idea of Ashgabat supplying electricity to Tajikistan through his own country’s grid. Turkmenistan, which ditched the Central Asian grid as early as 2003, and Tajikistan have repeatedly talked up the idea of electricity deals, but Karimov’s lack of cooperation routinely stymied progress.
“For the last 10 months, relations between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan have noticeably warmed,” said Zakhvatov. “As far as we can tell, the leadership of the two countries have come to understand that politics have long undermined the economy, and this situation needs to be fixed. And so there is hope that there will be cooperation in the energy sector, and that it is not only relations in this sector that will improve.”