The blackouts usually start this time of year. As the temperature drops and the days get shorter, Central Asia’s aging energy infrastructure struggles to keep up, leaving residents cold and in the dark.
When the region was managed by Moscow and was not divided by international borders, upstream, water-rich Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan would produce hydropower in the summer, and receive gas from downstream Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan in the winter. The five independent countries still trade, begrudgingly. But as they bicker, the system is falling apart.
Kazakhstan is again talking about withdrawing from the system altogether, Business New Europe reports, blaming Uzbekistan for deviously siphoning off electricity from the regional grid. Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are experiencing vast shortages. From BNE:
Uzbekistan has introduced rolling electricity blackouts across the country, with the power turned off for one or two hours a day in Tashkent and until 6pm in other cities. Rural areas are receiving no electricity at all, and many towns have no heating. In addition to the electricity shortage, a lack of gasoline has resulted in mile-long queues at petrol stations, and cutbacks to public transport.
Kyrgyzstan is also struggling to supply its population with heat and electricity, which has caused the country to cut its electricity exports to both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Kyrgyzstan cut electricity generation in September to conserve water in its reservoirs, resulting in a fall in electricity exports of over 1bn kWh to 1.5bn kWh.
The start of the heating season has put further pressure on Kyrgyzstan's energy sector, with gas imports from Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan having been cut due to the debts run up by the struggling government.
Parts of Bishkek and northern Kyrgyzstan have been left without gas altogether in recent weeks. Last year, a report sponsored by the US government said Kyrgyzstan’s energy system faces a “catastrophic breakdown” because of an inability to accurately measure consumption and rampant misreporting by the company in control of energy distribution (i.e. corruption).
In Tajikistan, some 70 percent of the population suffers “from extensive shortages of electricity during the winter,” resulting in loses of approximately 3 percent of GDP, says a World Bank study released last month. As Dushanbe focuses all its efforts on building the world’s tallest hydropower dam, the system is terribly inefficient, and 40 percent of the country’s electricity is going to power an aluminum factory whose profits disappear into offshore accounts. “The electricity situation in Tajikistan is dire,” says the World Bank report:
The electricity shortages have not been addressed because investments have not been made in new electricity supply capacity and maintenance of existing assets has not improved. The financial incentive for electricity consumers to reduce their consumption is inadequate as electricity prices are among the lowest in the world. […]
The system is increasingly vulnerable to a major breakdown that would jeopardize the supply of electricity to all customers and cause enormous damage to Tajikistan’s economy.
Uzbekistan is supposed to be better off than these poorer neighbors. The country has ample gas reserves. Yet, IWPR reports, the people, some of whom are stocking up on cow dung, don’t:
Much of the country ha[s] been affect[ed]. In the Bektemir district of Tashkent region, residents say they have had no gas in their homes since mid-November, as temperatures drop below zero.
Children have not been going to school since it is as cold inside as outside. The mother of one schoolchild said teachers had asked pupils to stay at home as too many were falling ill.
It’s rare to get an Uzbek official to talk on the record (about almost anything), but IWPR did get a response to its queries about gas shortages:
A representative of the state-run oil and gas company dismissed reports of shortages.
"It’s all fairytales. Our country is rich in gas, so how can our people not have any? Our company is supplying it according to schedule,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "The people complaining either haven’t paid their bills, or else there have been some technical problems – and that’s highly unlikely as we haven’t recorded any breakdowns."
Maybe there’s a better explanation.
Uzbekistan’s state-controlled gas concern, Uzbekneftegaz, is upping exports. On November 27, Regnum.ru quoted Serik Sultangaliev, director of KazTransGas, as saying the Uzbeks would begin providing Kazakhstan 3 billion cubic meters (bcm) of natural gas per year, and pass another 500 million cubic meters across southern Kazakhstan to China. Uzbekistan started gas exports to China in August. Under a deal signed in 2010, Tashkent is to supply Beijing 10 bcm of gas a year. That’s a lot of cow dung.