A much-anticipated World Bank study is expected to rule later this year on the feasibility of building the world’s tallest hydroelectric dam, Rogun, in Tajikistan. This week, the Bank has given a sneak peak at its findings, and the moderately encouraging remarks are likely to divide archrivals Tajikistan and downstream Uzbekistan further along traditional lines.
Dushanbe says Tajikistan needs the Soviet-designed project to ensure its energy independence. For President Emomali Rakhmon, Rogun is more than an investment in his country’s future: It’s central to Tajikistan’s identity and his legacy.
Downstream on the Amu Darya, Tashkent is aggressively opposed to the project, saying it will hurt Uzbekistan’s agricultural sector and poses an unnecessary risk in a seismically active region. Over the last few years, Tashkent has done just about everything it can to make life hell for Tajikistan and stop the project – closing borders randomly, preventing transit of goods and people to the region’s most isolated country, and cutting off gas supplies during the coldest months. Uzbek President Islam Karimov has even warned of war.
So supportive comments from the World Bank’s regional director, Saroj Kumar Jha, are no doubt welcome in Dushanbe.
“[O]n the key issues of dam and public safety, including analysis of possible earthquakes,” Jha says, “[t]he interim findings from the presentations, reports and feedback from the Panels of Experts are that the dam type under consideration and stability of the slopes appear to be acceptable.”
World Bank researchers are similarly sanguine on water management and flood risk, he says.
On dangers the dam could speed up climate change, however, the interim findings are less upbeat, concluding “that climate change could result in increased temperature, which would modify flood regime and river flow pattern.”
Jha also suggests the Rogun design is not final, which will likely irk Rakhmon, who loves to break records. (By the way, the World Bank has said nothing about financing the 335-meter, 3,600-megawatt project, which various estimates place between $2 and $6 billion. Tajikistan has had trouble finding backers and seems unlikely to complete the project on its own.)
Both Tashkent and Dushanbe paint the Rogun debate as a mater of national security. But while the two sides show no interest in negotiating – Rakhmon on the dam’s height and Karimov on whether it is built at all – there’s something else both ignore: their wasteful use of water. And that’s hurting their economies. In both countries and across the region, infrastructure, such as aging Soviet-built canals, is in dire shape. Indeed, a water engineer working for the Asian Development Bank this week told me that Rogun is nothing for Uzbekistan to worry about: “It’s all politics,” he said. If Tashkent would spend its energies patching up its leaky canals and pipe networks, he estimated, it would save 60 percent of its water.
For a good look at how water in the region is used (or wasted), check out this infographic by the Amu Darya Basin Network. Across the basin, “almost 50 percent of the water lost in irrigation is due to inefficient irrigation technologies,” the Network says, resulting in a loss of 3 percent to Central Asia’s GDP annually.
David Trilling is Eurasianet’s managing editor.