STORY: A REGION IN THE DARK Print this page  |  Email this page   
By Paul Rimple

Like most of regional Georgia, Samegrelo has been in a state of suspended animation for a decade. Factories stand abandoned, pitted roads await resurfacing, hospitals make do without medicine, tea plantations go unpicked. The legitimate economy is virtually immobile. Electricity, the key to giving the regional economy a kick in the seat, is today, at best, an intermittent commodity.

The issue has implications that stretch far beyond this western region. Reviving the country’s derelict energy sector is a critical criterion for the government’s top pledge for 2005 – expanding employment and reviving the economy. In his February 2005 State of the Nation address, President Mikheil Saakashvili named the power supply as “the biggest failure of our government.” The Saakashvili administration has since promised that 2006 will be the first year since 1992 without blackouts.

The only question for the central government -- and for Georgians accustomed to life in the dark -- is how to make it happen. Many say that Samegrelo could contain part of the answer.

The Enguri hydroelectric power station, built in 1984, straddles both Georgian and Abkhazian territory, and supplies Georgia with half of its energy production, or some 4.5 million kilowatt hours per year. Its dam, 800 meters long and 271.5 meters high, is the tallest “ arch dam” in the world and the most massive structure in the Caucasus. The reservoir, when full, has a maximum capacity of 1.1 billion cubic meters and is capable of generating 1,300 megawatts per hour. (By comparison, the Hoover Dam in Nevada can generate up to 2,080 megawatts.)

But today, Enguri produces just 40 percent of its potential system output. Years of neglect and misuse have seriously affected its condition and capabilities. Only four of the five Enguri generators operate. Breakdowns are frequent. Since the end of the war with Abkhazia in 1994, only one of an additional set of four generators, located in Abkhazia and known as the Vardnili, have functioned; the other three have “ drowned.”

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The situation, said Enguri Supervisory Board Director Misha Babukhadia, is nothing short of “severe.”

“Everything needs rehabilitation,” Babukhadia continued. “The dam alone is losing 500 million kilowatt hours of water through a broken stop lock. That’s about one-quarter of Tbilisi’s annual energy consumption. The pump station which extracts water that seeps into the foundation is dysfunctional, and we don’t know exactly how much water is leaking from the tunnel, but there are rumors that locals have set up homemade turbines at leakage points.”

The station, originally intended for peak power supplies only, is being asked to churn out more energy than ever was intended. The constant changes in reservoir levels to supply the energy demanded have worn the entire structure “down to its foundation,” Babukhadia said.

As a result, not only do Samegrelian villages go months without electricity, but neighborhoods in central Zugdidi, the region’s main town of 68,200, do as well -- a scenario consequently duplicated throughout the rest of Georgia.

With $38.5 million from The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development in hand for the job, the Saakashvili government planned to put Enguri back on its feet this year -- and move Georgia toward a reliable electricity supply. Under the rehabilitation plan, three of the Enguri generators would be refurbished.

But the government has had to play its timing carefully. The brunt of the repairs requires a three-month shutdown of the Enguri complex, while water levels are low, in late winter. Coincidently, this is also when electricity needs are the greatest – and tolerance for the additional power shortages that Enguri officials say are likely to occur is at its lowest. In early 2005, protests at ongoing blackouts and gas and electricity shortages occurred in Samegrelo, as well as the neighboring region of Ajaria, and Tbilisi.

So far, Enguri’s repair date has been twice rescheduled. An initial date, March 26, was allegedly delayed so that the government could find a reliable energy replacement. A second date, May 10, the final day of US President George W. Bush’s visit to Georgia, has now been postponed until 2006 – according to Babukhadia, to avoid the flooding of privately owned lands that would occur if the complex were shut down in summer. “Work will have to begin next year, at the end of February, ideally,” Babukhadia said.

Privatization has been reported to be one way the government is considering more extensive repairs for Enguri, but Babukadia dismissed the rumors, saying that the station’s political significance is too great.

With Enguri’s dam in Georgia and its generators in Abkhazia, both sides are dependent on each other for energy and have little choice but to cooperate. Forty percent of Enguri’s energy output goes to Abkhazia , yet the responsibility for maintenance is Georgia’ s. Furthermore, when the plant closes for repairs, Georgia will import energy from Russia to supply Abkhazia. All station employees, however, are ethnic Georgians (local Mengrelians) with approximately 200 on the Georgian side of the border and 500 in the predominantly Georgian district of Gali in Abkhazia.

De facto Abkhazian President Sergei Bagapsh has guaranteed cooperation for Enguri’s repairs, according to Enguri Dam Director Joni Chania. “We have no problems with the Abkhaz here. They even give surplus energy to Georgia. Remember, before the war, we were family.”

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Nonetheless, even if Enguri’s repair work proceeds, the added benefit to Georgia will only be an estimated 30 percent increase in power supplies. With Tbilisi and other regions also standing in line for more electricity, residents of Samegrelo are unlikely to see substantial improvements immediately.

Meanwhile, they rely on their own resourcefulness. A mind-boggling melange of illegal lines hangs precariously over Zugdidi. One popular power source is a relay station behind City Hall.

A so-called “commercial line” provides an additional option, but only to those with the cash for average monthly bills of 20 lari (about $11).

The lines, spin-offs from the city’s two most reliable electricity zones, Sectors 6 and 8, were first set up for businesses and state institutions that paid a fee for meter installation and then paid monthly bills, based on usage, for a relatively uninterrupted flow of electricity. Private residents have since begun to subscribe, often collaborating with neighbors for meter installation to defray set-up costs.

But the commercial line is a solution only for Zugdidi residents. Its future development depends on the reliability of the town’s electricity source, Enguri. And as of now, officials responsible for the line are not granting interviews about the possibility of expansion.

Cost is another factor. Even those residents who have subscribed to the commercial line often can’ t afford to heat water, making cold baths still a reality. Zugdidi’s general hospital reported in mid-April that it had received uninterrupted electricity for 15 days from the commercial line, but, due to the line’s higher cost, they switch to the commercial electricity supply only once the public line has gone out.

Yet some Samegrelo residents see the for-profit line’s relative success as a sign that energy could be made available on a regular basis if residents would pay their bills.

At the general hospital in Zugdidi, though, four administrators laughed at the idea of paying for electricity. ”Oh yes, I paid the bill once,” one said, “ and the next day they shut me off. I had no electricity for weeks. So why should I pay my bill?”

Those without access to the commercial line are even more pessimistic about the chances of a return to 24-hour electricity.

Jambol, his wife, child and 20 other Abkhaz refugees have lived in an abandoned elementary school for ten years. They share a common well, three outhouses and an utterly substandard influx of electricity. “ So, they fix Enguri, and what, we’ ll get more electricity?” Jambol said under the weak glint of a single bulb, illegally connected by a copper wire to an ambiguous source. “ We’ve been in the dark so long, what’s another promise?”

Editor’s Note: Paul Rimple is a freelance writer based in Tbilisi.

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