On the roads from Tajikistan’s capital, the houses all billow out dirty black smoke.
With the cold gripping ever tighter, households must resort to using old-fashioned stoves. And anything, even things unsuitable for the purpose, is used for fuel.
The higher into the mountains one goes, the harder it is.
Manizha Mahmadjanova, 30, a mother of three who lives in the mountains of Faizobod, around 70 kilometers east of Dushanbe, said snow began falling in their village in November. With power rationing having begun in October, relying on electricity for heating and cooking was not an option.
“We use the same stove to warm ourselves, boil water, and cook food. In the evening, we get power for four hours. The same amount during the day. That’s enough to charge our phones, watch some TV and bathe the children,” Mahmadjanova told Eurasianet.
The stove is fueled with firewood and dung.
“We are afraid to use coal, there have been several cases of carbon monoxide poisoning,” Mahmadjanova said.
President Emomali Rahmon informed the public that they should expect yet another winter of power rationing on October 24 in the town of Nurek, site of the Soviet-era power plant that still provides the country with most of its electricity. He played down the exceptional and extreme extent of the rationing, arguing that “even the developed countries of the world” were experiencing electricity shortages and that households must be frugal.
Tajikistan first began to experience these chronic difficulties in the early 2000s, when Uzbekistan suspended deliveries of natural gas. Shortage of that fuel meant power generators were unable to work at full capacity in winter.
Many a time since then, Rahmon has assured the public that Tajikistan is on the cusp of achieving “energy independence.” He promised in 2016 that the day would come “within three years.” In 2009, he vowed energy independence would be attained “within four years.”
At the heart of all this bullish talk is the Roghun hydropower plant project. The dream is that this electricity generator would not only entirely meet the country’s needs, but would produce enough power for export to Afghanistan, Pakistan and beyond.
Work on building the projected 335-meter dam got underway in November 2016. Construction is being carried out by Milan-based Webuild, a company that was known as Salini Impregilo until May 2020. The first generating units were commissioned in November 2018 and September 2019, but there have been limited signs of progress since then.
Webuild hailed a milestone of sorts in July when it announced that it had begun the concrete pour for construction of the core dam at Roghun. But the completion date of 2025 forecast by Webuild is nevertheless looking highly optimistic.
The problem is clear enough: money. Tajikistan does not have enough funds to pay for the project itself and few outsiders are prepared to commit either.
“Investors are not in a hurry since this would be a long-term investment,” said Parviz Mullojanov, a political analyst. “The hydropower plant was built with the idea of export in mind, but things there are not so clear. So investors see no sense in putting their money into it when there are other ways to make a quick return.”
The estimated budget keeps ballooning. In 2008, when it was announced that the Roghun project, which was first devised in Soviet times, was to be revived, the cost was estimated at $3 billion. That price tag had risen to $3.9 billion by 2016. This year, the Energy Ministry announced it will take $5 billion to finish Roghun. Higher estimates have been mentioned elsewhere.
Campaigns to raise the funds have at times been outlandish. In 2010, countless Tajiks were cajoled into buying shares in the project. The campaign managed to raise an impressive but still small, given the needs, amount of $180 million. The government never attempts to give any proper account of how it spends its money, so it is not fully understood where all those funds, gathered amid much difficulty and heartache, ended up.
This point is particularly problematic in Tajikistan, since every cent that ostensibly goes toward Roghun is one deprived from the country’s sorely underfunded schools and hospitals.
As the World Bank pointed out in a report published in June, between 2015 and 2020, “energy sector spending accounted for a quarter of total budget spending, and the pressure placed on the state budget by the Roghun hydropower plant [project] will remain high in the medium term.”
“Expenditure on Roghun is forcing the government to reduce the volume of necessary social spending, jeopardizing macroeconomic stability and exacerbating the risk of a debt crisis,” the World Bank found in its report.
In September 2017, the National Bank issued $500 million worth of eurobonds on the international market, a pile of debt that is already requiring Tajikistan to make annual repayments of around $35 million.
Avesta reported on December 6, citing government officials, that Tajikistan is hoping to raise another 314 million euros ($334 million) for Roghun next year. The plan is to drum up the funds through the issue of loans at “acceptable interest rates.” The officials offered no indication as to which countries or financial institutions might hand over this cash.
There may be hopes that the European Union will live up to vague commitments to become an investor in the project. In July, the EU’s investment arm, the European Investment Bank, told Reuters news agency that it had been charged by the European Commission with becoming “the largest investor” in Roghun. The stated purpose of the investment was to reduce Tajikistan’s dependence on Russia.
But as Temur Umarov, a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, points out, any such support may be contingent on the ability and willingness of the corrupt, nepotistic regime running Tajikistan to demonstrate transparency.
“It seems to me that, at least until there are changes in the political system of Tajikistan, we will not see real changes over the Roghun hydropower plant,” Umarov said. “Of course, Rahmon will make all these promises. He’ll say that in two years, or three or four, Roghun will be built, and we’ll become the biggest provider of electricity in Central Asia, and we’ll be one of the richest nations in the world for water, but that is far from becoming reality.”