Water and Energy in Tajikistan

Stephen DeAngelis

September 22, 2008

Last August I wrote a post about growing concerns over the availability of water [The Coming Water Wars?]. Water is like most natural resources, some countries have more of it than others. One of the countries historically blessed with abundant water is the Central Asian nation of Tajikistan. Even there, however, the availability of water is not evenly distributed across the country. As the 20th century gave way to the 21st, much of Tajikistan found itself in a severe drought, which caused crop failures and famine. Mountainous and landlocked, Tajikistan is one of the poorest countries in the region. Its primary sources of foreign revenue are exports of cotton and aluminum. As a supplier of raw material, however, its economy is highly vulnerable to external shocks. In order to diversify its economy and take advantage of its access to water, Tajikistan is planning a number of dams to produce electricity that could be sold throughout the region [“Tajikistan Hopes Water Will Power Its Ambitions,” by David L. Stern, New York Times, 31 August 2008]. Stern writes:

“The inscription just above a tunnel at the foot of the colossal Nurek hydropower dam in south central Tajikistan is succinct: ‘Water Is Life.’ The frigid, frothing Vakhsh River rushing under it adds a visual punctuation mark. In Tajikistan, the source of more than 40 percent of Central Asia’s water, this is no mere platitude. The mountainous state lacks the industry and natural riches that bless other former Soviet Central Asian republics. Water is one of the few resources the country possesses in great abundance. For this reason, President Emomali Rakhmon has pinned Tajikistan’s economic hopes — and perhaps even its continued political existence — on developing its hydropower potential.”

It should come as no surprise that as the source of 40 percent of Central Asia’s water Tajikistan’s plans are raising more than eyebrows in the area. Rakhmon is dreaming big — really big.

“Three projects are either under construction or being considered, including Rogun, a gargantuan structure farther up the Vakhsh River. Tajik officials say they have hopes of building more than 20 hydroelectric plants and dams.”

Big dreams require big money. That is only one of the challenges that Tajikistan’s ambitious leaders face.

“Tajikistan is in an earthquake zone and the dams must be built to withstand major seismic shocks. Officials are expected to conduct environmental impact studies to determine whether any flora or fauna will be threatened. The Tajik government is also heavily in debt and must find heavy foreign investment to build the dams. On Wednesday, China agreed to build a $300 million hydroelectric power plant, Nurobad-2, with a capacity of 160 to 220 megawatts. But Tajik officials say Rogun alone will cost up to $3.2 billion. Further afield, the region’s complicated water politics, where upstream and downstream countries have diametrically opposed needs and aims, threaten to intensify.”

Before the advent of the electricity, dams were traditionally used to control water flows. That control over the water is exactly what downstream countries fear. For Tajiks, being able to control and direct water could mean an end to devastating droughts and famines as well as providing them with reliable power and a steady source of income.

“[In Tajikistan], water irrigates endless fields of cotton, one of the main sources of income in this primarily agricultural land. Nurek — the world’s highest dam, at 984 feet, and a prestige project of the Soviet Union — is the difference between light and darkness, heat and no heat, for the majority of Tajikistan’s seven million inhabitants, supplying nearly all the country’s energy needs. It also provides cheap electricity to power the Talco aluminum plant, the nation’s largest industrial enterprise. Rogun, as it is now envisioned, would surpass Nurek’s height by more than 100 feet.”

None of this is going to happen, however, without a large infusion of outside capital. Tajikistan teeters on the cusp of a dark future that threatens to plunge it to the very bottom of poverty’s sinkhole.

“The country still has not fully recovered from a devastating civil war a decade ago. State coffers are virtually empty, while the government is viewed as unable to meet basic needs. The situation was laid bare last winter when prolonged subzero temperatures overloaded the Soviet-era electrical grid, plunging the entire country into cold and darkness. For Western officials working in Tajikistan, the emergency was a disturbing revelation of the government’s dysfunction. ‘The crisis was not caused by the winter weather,’ said an official of an American nongovernmental organization, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the news media. ‘The crisis was triggered by the winter weather, but caused by chronic mismanagement.'”

In a recent post [More on Dealing with Failed States], I noted that authors Ashraf Ghani and Clare Lockhart believe that most states fail because of a “sovereignty gap” — the difference between what a sovereign developed nation can provide for its citizens and what a so-called sovereign failed state can provide for its citizens. Tajikistan appears to be the poster child for their theory. Stern continues:

“All of Tajikistan’s power troubles will be remedied by the dam projects, the Rakhmon government hopes. They will not only provide for all of Tajikistan’s energy needs but also allow the country to export power to neighboring countries. ‘It’s a good idea — hydropower is one of the few resources that Tajikistan can exploit,’ said John Morgan, an official with Usaid, the American assistance program, and a power specialist. ‘Power lines could go to Afghanistan and Pakistan, which are both energy-starved countries, and to the rest of Central Asia as well.’ Rogun, for example, will generate about 13 billion kilowatt hours per year, more than 80 percent of the country’s average consumption, officials at the construction site say. In the short term, Sangtuda-1, a hydropower plant that began operating last winter, will take on some of the country’s electrical heavy lifting, though its introduction failed to resolve the electricity crisis.”

I have repeatedly written about how corruption stymies development. Not only does corruption drain precious resources from needed programs, it discourages the infusion of new capital. That is the current state of affairs in Tajikistan.

“Outside investors are leery. While individual investors who are more accepting of risk may materialize, international donor organizations and banks have become more circumspect with Tajikistan. Besides the dysfunction and corruption revealed by the winter crisis, the International Monetary Fund recently announced that Tajikistan had misreported its finances six times over the last decade, an I.M.F. record. President Rakhmon has asked Tajiks to voluntarily forfeit a month’s wages, or about $10 million, to finance the initial building stage.”

Sacrificing for one’s future is one thing; trusting that future to a corrupt government is quite another. Then there’s the water issue.

“Central Asia’s disagreements over how to allocate water resources resemble the Middle East’s in their complexity and potential for conflict. Downstream countries, most prominently Uzbekistan, have steadfastly opposed Tajikistan’s hydroelectric plans. The two countries are engaged in an undeclared cold war, Western diplomatic analysts say. The Uzbeks, who need to provide for their expansive and inefficiently irrigated cotton fields, say that the dams will disturb the water cycle, withholding water in the summer when it is needed and releasing it in the winter for electricity. Tajik authorities say that the opposite will be true and that the dams will better regulate water distribution: water will be held in the winter and released in the summer. Other analysts say that the Uzbeks, who supply electricity to Tajikistan, fear they will lose leverage over their neighbors. ‘The thing is, the more dams, the more control the Tajiks will have over the water, and that’s what the Uzbeks are afraid of,’ said one Western diplomat in the capital, Dushanbe.”

If the water issues get resolved and the dams actually get built, the challenge of distributing generated power to areas that need it (and can pay for it) is another significant challenge that must be faced. Electrical grids are expensive and complicated. In a recent post [Updates on Solar Energy], I noted that electrical transmission challenges even affect a developed country like the U.S. If Tajikistan pulls this off, it will be miraculous. I can guarantee that it won’t happen if Tajik leaders don’t first tackle the problems of corruption and incompetence. Only after they demonstrate the ability to govern with integrity will they be able to get the cooperation of others necessary to make their dreams come true.