If there is one country in Central Asia that might expect to be spared electricity woes, it should be Turkmenistan.
But a failure at a power plant in the eastern town of Mary over the New Year holiday has highlighted another area where reforms are urgently needed. The late-December failure knocked out half the plant’s capacity, leaving many in Turkmenistan’s eastern provinces without electricity. In Mary, the country’s fourth-largest city, power was provided only intermittently over a three-day period.
In the village of Farab, which lies just across the border from Bukhara, in Uzbekistan, local people prepared for the New Year without electricity, household gas or heating.
“Since a lot of kindergartens and schools weren’t heated, the children had to stay home, which people warmed with diesel-powered heaters,” said Farab resident Nasiba. “People were cooking in the street, some with firewood, some with small kerosene stoves, and the gas supply was so weak it took hours even to boil a kettle.”
The Mary power plant also creates export electricity for neighbors Afghanistan and Iran.
Afghanistan’s official Bakhtar news agency reported on a disruption in supplies to Herat Province in western Afghanistan, which, it said on January 2, had lasted two weeks already.
The crisis has caused heads to roll. Before the New Year, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov severely reprimanded the energy minister and fired the deputy head of the emergency situations committee.
On January 2, Berdymukhamedov fired Mary power plant chief Altymyrat Gurbangeldiyev. At the same government meeting, he instructed Energy Minister Myrat Artykov to travel to Mary to take all necessary measures to solve the issues. Artykov promised prompt action.
The time gap between the halt in power deliveries to Afghanistan and action by the president’s office suggests a substantial lag in information-sharing.
Perhaps hoping to forestall any grumbling, Berdymukhamedov said a new modern power plant would be built on the site of the existing one in Mary. Small power plants will also soon be built in the capital, Ashgabat, and other locations.
Turkmen households benefit from generous electricity subsidies, keeping up demand. Every household receives 35 kilowatt hours per resident free monthly. Local requirements are still significantly below the average U.S. household consumption of 958 kilowatt hours per month, so the perk goes a long way toward fulfilling local needs.
Still, because of the dilapidated state of Turkmenistan's energy infrastructure, power supplies can be erratic in the colder months, when many resort to electricity for heating. Surges in demand frequently cause accidents and interruptions to supply.
Ashgabat resident Natalia, 57, says she has stocked up on candles over the past few days, just in case.
“Where we are, in Choglany [in northern Ashgabat], they have been turning off the power three weeks in a row. That’s why I am bulk-buying,” she said.
On January 4, Turkmenistan passed an unprecedented law regulating mass media that’s ostensibly designed to reflect popular needs more closely. Local news outlets are in no rush, however, to talk about problems under Berdymukhamedov, whose rule is known officially as the “Era of Power and Happiness.”
Turkmenistan’s characteristically mild winter weather is some consolation. The forecast for the next days is for a sharp rise in temperature.