It is becoming a pattern: As temperatures plunge in Kyrgyzstan, the gas gets cut, the electricity system overloads and burns out, and people shiver. Once central Bishkek, the capital, was immune to such suffering. No longer.
Temperatures in Bishkek have been hovering around -20 Celsius (-4 Fahrenheit) since December 14 and are forecast to drop further this week. When the cold hit, Kazakhstan cut its supplies of gas to northern Kyrgyzstan, citing cuts from Uzbekistan. The chain reaction, resulting in an immediate shutoff across most of Bishkek, prompted many residents to turn to electricity for heating and cooking, which overloaded the system, causing widespread blackouts.
The government has said little about the crisis, but a representative of Kyrgyzgaz, the state-controlled gas-import monopoly, told Kloop.kg that residents could expect gas supplies to resume within “a week.”
At least eight homeless people froze to death over the weekend, the 24.kg news service reported. On December 17 a handful of residents gathered in central Ala-Too Square to protest the three-day-old gas cutoff, but they quickly dispersed due to the extreme temperatures. Later in the day, a prominent newspaper editor called on residents to burn tires in the streets.
“It’s so cold now in my house that last night my cat got into my bed and we slept together to keep each other warm,” Alexandra Eresko, a 70-year-old shopkeeper, told EurasiaNet.org.
The shortages should come as no surprise. Even before the latest cold snap, Bishkek mayor Isa Omurkulov said on December 7 that the city faces up to 900 outages per week, Tazabek.kg quoted him as saying.
Part of the problem is that Bishkek has roughly doubled in population since the Soviet collapse in 1991: by some estimates the city is home to over a million people, though no one knows for sure. But the impoverished independent country does not have the resources to expand or even maintain the aged energy grid.
Industry experts have warned that Kyrgyzstan’s energy system faces, in the words of a 2011 American government-sponsored study, a “catastrophic breakdown.” The study warned that without urgent attention and investment, a failure could take months to repair, and said infrastructure needs investments of between $1.5 and $2.1 billion, or up to 35 percent of GDP, simply to become reliable.
For years experts and multilateral donors, such as the Asian Development Bank, have told Kyrgyzstan to increase its energy tariffs, which are among the lowest in the world. But successive governments have avoided the delicate issue, fearing a public backlash. A sudden spike in energy prices helped precipitate the fall of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev in 2010.
“Along with substantial transmission and distribution losses, power tariffs need to be revised and the financial performance of utilities is poor. These factors have undermined domestic supply,” the ADB said several months after Bakiyev’s ouster.
Officials acknowledge the need to increase tariffs to encourage conservation and raise funds for repairs. Sayragul Doolatova, a spokeswoman for the Ministry of Energy and Industry, says that next April most consumers can expect a 10 percent rise in energy fees.
Critics say that is not enough. But they also point out that widespread corruption makes such measures effectively meaningless.
MP Omurbek Abdyrakhmanov, a member of parliament’s Committee on Budget and Finance, says corruption infiltrates every level of Kyrgyzstan’s energy system, from distributors and importers to individual households and large companies.
“Energy companies make improper deals in collusion with consumers,” Abdyrakhmanov told EurasiaNet.org. “For example, a company representative visits a consumer’s home to check the supply meter, and the consumer suggests a small fee to write off the debt.”
Abdyrakhmanov says tariff increases will not address problems in the commercial and industrial sectors, where some businesses use electricity and gas virtually free of charge. “It is a source of huge losses, when, for example, saunas, cafés, restaurants and other big business pay peanuts for energy. In other words, they simply steal energy [by bribing distribution companies], make lots of profits, and ordinary people suffer,” he said.
The government has been frustratingly silent about the current crisis.
“Certainly, today the energy sector in Kyrgyzstan is experiencing hard times. The power equipment has not been updated since independence,” a spokesman for Prime Minister Jantoro Satybaldiyev told EurasiaNet.org on December 17. “Satybaldiyev instructed [officials] not to implement rotating power cutoffs, but it is possible that blackouts may occur due to electricity overload on some substations or transformers.”
“This year, like in the past, the big problem is gas supply. The government is negotiating with gas suppliers,” the spokesman added.
Some believe Kazakhstan’s sudden gas cut-off, at such a sensitive time, was designed to pressure Kyrgyzstan to sell Kyrgyzgaz to Russia’s Gazprom. A Kyrgyz delegation is scheduled to fly to Moscow on December 18 to discuss the sale. Kazakh media reported on December 17 that Kyrgyzgaz owes KazTransGas, its Kazakh counterpart, $26.6 million.
The negotiations will be little consolation to the thousands of people currently sitting in dark, cold apartments. Though shortages like Bishkek is experiencing are familiar throughout the country, many residents of small towns and villages long ago stopped depending on regular supplies of energy and gas and, instead, heat their homes with coal. That is not an option in Bishkek’s pre-fabricated apartment blocks, which lack chimneys and the necessary ventilation.
Osh – Kyrgyzstan’s second largest city, in the milder Ferghana Valley – is bracing for similar shortages as temperatures are forecast to fall this week. The city gets most of its gas from neighboring Uzbekistan, which is having shortages of its own (while it exports gas to China).
A high school teacher and mother of four described the situation in Osh last February, when the gas and electricity were cut at the same time: “We had nothing to help the children in our freezing apartment. We ended up using candles to boil water to make tea. It took us about 45 minutes and 7 or 8 candles.”