It has been a winter tradition of late in Tajikistan: with the country’s aging infrastructure unable to produce enough electricity, the government has resorted to implementing rolling blackouts. Relief then would come in the spring -- when snowmelt and rain refilled reservoirs and fed hydropower plants. But this year is defying the pattern, with the power grid going dark when it should be giving light.
Officials at Barki Tajik, the national electricity company, are pinning the blame for this spring’s blackouts on Mother Nature, pointing to an unusually dry and cold spring. Tajikistan depends on hydropower for 98 percent of its energy output, thus a lack of water has dramatic implications for generating capacity. Barki Tajik announced on March 21 that the water level in the Vakhsh River was abnormally low. The Vakhsh, in turn, feeds the world’s tallest hydroelectric dam, the 300-meter-high Nurek facility, which supplies Tajikistan with 57 percent of its energy production, according to the United Nations.
Few Tajiks seem to be buying Barki Tajik’s explanation. Many suspect that poor management, or possibly illicit power exports during the winter months, is the main cause of the shortage. Whatever the case, the Nurek reservoir is now so low that it is approaching the “dead level,” at which point outflow must be stopped to avoid damaging the turbines.
International experts are focusing on the human element, not nature, as main suspect in the electricity shortage. A March 31 report by the UNDP’s Disaster Risk Management Program said Barki Tajik was selling electricity in January and February, months when local demand is greatest and the reservoir water level at its lowest. The report, citing local accounts, noted that 36 million kWh of exports, worth an estimated $700,000, probably went to energy-hungry Afghanistan. In recent years, the international community has helped construct power lines from Tajikistan, which dreams of being a net energy exporter, to Afghanistan and on to south Asia.
“Although the exact reason why Barki Tajik decided to increase electrical production at a time when demand for electricity is normally very high and water reserves the lowest is not known, it is clear that such decisions should be made with a good understanding of short- and medium-term weather forecasts, as well as analysis of historical weather data,” the report said. “Barki Tajik will need to continue to conserve water, limit electrical production and implement load shedding until inflows to the Vakhsh River Cascade increase.”
The former deputy head of Barki Tajik, Gennady Petrov, now an independent consultant, told Dushanbe’s Asia-Plus news agency on March 31 that the water level in the Nurek Reservoir this winter was actually higher than usual and expressed surprise over the sudden shortage. UNDP statistics confirm that throughout the winter the volume was approximately 15 percent above the six-year average, but it plummeted by late March.
A February report by the International Crisis Group described rampant mismanagement and warned that “Barki Tajik's maintenance of the energy system is at best ad hoc.”
“The national electricity company remains hostage to the elite's economic interest,” said the report, titled Central Asia: Decay and Decline. Recalling the winter of 2008 when “Tajikistan went pitch dark as the government could not provide power for weeks,” Crisis Group said energy specialists “are haunted by the nightmare that a sudden massive surge in energy demand will simply put transmission lines and power substations out of commission.”
Sabit Negmatullaev, former president of Tajikistan’s National Academy of Sciences and a lead designer on the Nurek project when it was constructed in the 1960s, told EurasiaNet.org that Barki Tajik’s allegations and statements about the ‘extremely low level’ of water in the Vakhsh River are exaggerations. Privately, energy analysts allege that officials helped bring about the current crisis by selling electricity, and depleting water supplies, in the winter.
Adding to fears that the system cannot meet power-generating needs, experts pointed to studies showing that the Nurek Reservoir is suffering from heavy silt build-up, meaning the recorded level of water may no longer be an accurate gauge of actual volume. During the last week of March, the reservoir level was only 2 meters above dead level.
Though many regions of Tajikistan still only have two to four hours of electricity per day, the immediate forecast is improving. Snowmelt is increasing the inflow of the Vakhsh River and replenishing the Nurek Reservoir. Barki Tajik promises a quick end to electricity rationing. But experts are now wondering; if such a severe disruption can occur in the spring, could Tajikistan’s energy sector face a total breakdown in the not too distant future?
Konstantin Parshin is a freelance journalist based in Tajikistan.