Rogun hydro-power plant-a disputed issue in Central Asia

Photo: Rogun hydro-power plant-a disputed issue in Central Asia
 / Tajikistan

By Aynur Jafarova, Azernews

Tajikistan is in need of energy. Although the Central Asian country is located in such an energy-rich region, it faces energy-related problems. In order to solve them, Tajikistan has constructed several hydro-power plants on its soil. Recently, Iran announced plans to build a hydro-power station in Tajikistan as well.

Tajik President Emomali Rahmon has put forward a goal: to construct Rogun Hydro Power Plant (HPP). In November 2012, the Tajik government announced that over $251 million will be allocated for the construction of the Rogun Dam on the Vakhsh River as part of the Rogun HPP project.

The Tajik president said at the eleventh meeting of the Asia Cooperation Dialogue foreign ministers that Tajikistan, with its great natural wealth potential, is able to produce cheap electric power and provide the region with it.

The existing hydro-power facilities of Tajikistan don't meet the country's demand and it has to import hydrocarbons from neighboring countries. The cost of Uzbek natural gas imported by Tajikistan has been increasing in recent years.

According to Tajik media, Tajikistan faces shortages in winter when rural Tajik consumers receive electricity on average five to seven hours per day. Due to the lack of energy in the country, many enterprises work only seasonally due to the energy deficit in fall.

According to government sources, due to the shortage of natural gas, a number of energy-intensive industrial plants such as Tajikcement have ground to a halt and there is a serious situation in the Tajik aluminum company, TALCO, in ensuring exports of the country.

However, the construction of the Rogun HPP is not easy. Tajikistan faces economic and political obstacles of neighboring countries, in particular, Uzbekistan, with which Tajikistan has problematic relations. Another problem is how to finance the construction of the Rogun HPP, the cost of which is estimated at as much as $2.2 billion.

Meanwhile, according to experts, Tajikistan will continue the construction of the Rogun HPP on account of the funds received from the population. Also, Tajikistan will look for other investors, if necessary, they believe.

Rogun Dam, the tallest in the world

The Rogun Dam, the construction plan of which dates back to the 1960s, was one of the three proposed hydro power projects on the Vakhsh River. The three projects - Nurek, Sangtuda and Rogun - were intended for expanding the irrigable lands downstream along the Amu Darya River in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan Soviet Socialist Republics as well as providing electricity for industrial development in Tajikistan SSR during the Soviet times.

The Nurek and Sangtuda projects were realized, but Rogun was not. The technical design of the Rogun Dam also differs from other projects: it is planned to be 335 meters high with capacity of 3,600 megawatts per year. If constructed, the Rogun Dam will be the tallest dam in the world.

There have been several offers for the construction of the Rogun Dam. In August 2011, the World Bank proposed to construct a dam with the height of 120 meters. However, Tajikistan rejected the proposal. In 2004, Russia's RUSAL company proposed to construct it with a height of 285 meters and capacity of 2,400 megawatts. That proposal was rejected as well.

Uzbek-Tajik dispute

The Rogun HPP is seen in Tajikistan as a solution to the energy independence and a tool for economic growth. If the project is implemented, Tajikistan will be able to generate about 13 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity annually. This will not only help the country to meet its domestic needs but will also make Tajikistan a major exporter of electricity.

Disputes over the construction of the Rogun HPP further complicated the strained relations between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

The economy of Uzbekistan is heavily dependent on agriculture. More than 90 percent of its fresh water is currently used for irrigation purposes. Uzbek President Islam Karimov has repeatedly stressed that the Rogun HPP will cause problems for Uzbekistan's agricultural sector. Tashkent argues that the formation of a giant reservoir behind the Rogun Dam would affect the flow of water to its cotton fields.

Furthermore, experts say that additional regulation of water in the Amu Darya River would have a serious negative impact on agricultural production as crop growing in Uzbekistan is water intensive and extra water availability in winter does not make up for the reduction in growing-season irrigation capacity.

However, according to some experts, Tashkent fears that the Rogun HPP would give Tajikistan significant control over the Uzbek economy and crucial geopolitical authority in the region. Uzbekistan, with the biggest population in Central Asia, has always had ambitions to be the leader of the region, they believe.

Also, the Vakhsh River is only one of Amu Darya River's three major tributaries. Furthermore, the Rogun HPP would be constructed on the Vakhsh River that supplies only 35 percent of irrigation to Uzbekistan's cotton fields, while up to 65 percent of water comes from the Panj River.

The dispute reached a new high when the Uzbek president stated that water disputes in Central Asia had the potential to boil into war.

In turn, the Tajik president repeatedly stressed that the Rogun issue is nonnegotiable and that the completion of the project is "imperative" and "of life or death importance" for Tajikistan. He referred to the construction of the HPP as "our national idea" and a "battlefield" for "national pride and honor."

However, Dushanbe should consider that Uzbekistan is currently Tajikistan's only supplier of natural gas and its most important transit link to the world. Experts believe that in order "to punish" Tajikistan for its aim to construct the Rogun HPP, Tashkent repeatedly stopped the natural gas exports to Tajikistan, refused to allow the transit of Kyrgyz and Turkmen electricity through its power grid and blocked the transit of all rail freight into Tajikistan.

Environmental impact

One of the main issues pertaining to the construction of the Rogun HPP is its impact on the environment of the region.

There are contradictory evaluations on the matter. Several experts believe that the Rogun HPP will cause disasters while others argue that there is no such possibility.

According to Saroj Kumar Jha, the World Bank Regional Director for Central Asia, the Rogun HPP would not threaten regional security and the slope stability and the proposed dam type "appear to be acceptable."

However, the Uzbek authorities say that the massive dam would have an adverse environmental impact and induce higher scale earthquakes in an already seismically active area. According to Uzbek experts, a large earthquake would destroy the Rogun Dam and tens of cities in Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan would be flooded.

However, according to experts, the disagreement between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan over the Rogun HPP is not about technical features of the project or its potential environmental impact. The main problem in the negotiation process is the politicization of the debates.

If Tajikistan and Uzbekistan agree on energy cooperation, electricity might become cheaper, while irrigation could be better managed. However, such a scenario appears unlikely given that the project gains more political coloring day by day.

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