While Tajiks were suffering through daily electricity blackouts this winter, their government was exporting electricity to Afghanistan, official statistics show.
Electricity exports are a hot topic in Central Asia lately. Only last week the World Bank announced it had earmarked $526.5 million in credit and grants for an ambitious project to help Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan export electricity to South Asia starting in 2018: CASA-1000. But that project is designed, World Bank officials insist, to export “surplus” electricity in the summer months only.
In a region where it’s hard to take officials at their word, could CASA-1000 be abused?
Extended, rolling blackouts are standard in mountainous Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan each winter, when reservoirs are exhausted and waiting for the spring thaw to refill. In recent weeks, the problem became acute in Tajikistan, with some areas only receiving 30 minutes of electricity per day, or even none at all, RFE/RL reported on March 27. Widespread outages started last October and normally continue until March. But this year blackouts are expected to continue a month longer than normal.
According to monitoring reports prepared by Tajikistan’s Ministry of Economic Development and Trade, in February the country exported over 3 percent of the electricity it produced, or 41 million kWh, to Afghanistan; in January it exported 2 percent. That might not sound like a lot, except to the thousands of Tajiks sitting in the dark day and night.
That electricity was exported from two newish hydropower dams, the Russian-built and controlled Sangtuda-1, and the Iranian-built and controlled Sangtuda-2. The companies behind both dams complained this winter that they were having trouble staying afloat because Tajikistan’s electricity-distributing monopoly, Barqi Tojik, has not been paying for power. (That’s because much of the country’s electricity is given at highly discounted rates to an opaque state-run aluminum smelter, which is believed to profit a small circle of people close to the president.) So any exports might have been designed to quietly pay off some of Barqi Tojik’s debts—indeed, there have been reports of Russian pressure on Barqi Tojik to allow exports of electricity from Sangtuda-1 to Afghanistan.
But there is no publicly available data on how much money the exports brought into the country, or where it went.
Which brings us back to CASA-1000. The World Bank promises the project will earn cash in summers that can be invested in increased generating capacity so Kyrgyz and Tajiks no longer have to suffer through these debilitating blackouts. One World Bank study found 80 percent of Tajik businesspeople believe the unreliable power supply is a “major obstacle to doing business.”
The World Bank’s March 27 press release hailed CASA-1000 as a “transformational project.” It is slated to cost $1.17 billion, over twice what the Bank has promised, with the Islamic Development Bank and USAID expected to contribute. The State Department, which sees the project as part of its much-vaunted “New Silk Road” strategy, has promised $15 million. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan must come up with $173 million on their own, according to a source close to the planning.
Aside from the extra financing, there is still a raft of agreements required before construction can commence (theoretically in early 2015, with the first electricity reaching Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2018): power purchase agreements between energy producers upstream and buyers downstream; coordination documents between producers and receivers; and other diplomatic and management agreements.
Among local officials and energy analysts in Central Asia, opinions about CASA-1000 are mixed. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are growing economies that require more and more energy. Though both are building new production facilities, these will take years to begin generating substantial amounts of power. One senior Kyrgyz government official said last fall he had other priorities than CASA-1000: “We have an electricity shortage here. We don’t need this,” he said.
World Bank officials promise CASA-1000 will only be used in the summer, when melting snows endow Tajikistan’s reservoirs with a surplus. But can anyone be sure? Barqi Tojik, that perennially broke state electricity distributor, seems to do everything it can to muddy its statistics. Local journalists have long speculated that these winter exports are lining someone’s pockets.
Besides, the new power lines will not sit idle in winter, said the source close to negotiations: “CASA-1000 would operate under an ‘open access’ regime which will allow any neighboring country to export additional power through the CASA-1000 transmission line when the line has surplus capacity during non-summer months.”
It sounds like the World Bank is entrusting Tajikistan to define what is “surplus.”