When a senior Tajikistan government official declared in July that Uzbekistan had given up on objections to the Rogun hydropower project, it implausibly seemed like a monumental entente had been reached.
Those remarks, made by Tajik Energy and Water Resources Minister Usmonali Usmonzoda on July 27, have proven woefully misleading, however.
Uzbekistan’s Foreign Ministry on August 1 issued a statement reiterating its total opposition to the project. For clarity’s sake, it reproduced a speech by Deputy Prime Rustam Azimov from last year that concluded with this unambiguous sentence: “Uzbekistan will never and under no circumstances give its support to this project.”
This brewing standoff may come to a head sooner than expected if Tajikistan’s optimistic timetable comes to fruition.
In August, Usmonzoda said Tajikistan plans to commission the first two units of the Roghun plant in the next few years. Ozodagon news agency quoted Usmonzoda as putting that timeframe at three years.
The first units will have a combined generating capacity of 800 megawatts, enough to provide the entire country electricity around the clock, Usmonzoda said.
Tajikistan now has to cope with severe power shortages, particularly in the winter, when electricity is rationed to around 4-5 hours in the morning and the same amount in the evening.
“All the required equipment for the two units is already in the country. Some of this equipment has been here since the times of the Soviet Union — the remaining parts were acquired in recent yeas from Ukrainian manufacturers in the electricity industry,” Usmonzoda was quoted as saying by Russia’s Interfax news agency.
Tajikistan is going it alone with the construction of Rogun hydropower plant, which is designed to incorporate six generation units with 600 megawatt capacity apiece. Efforts to attract foreign investment have foundered, so the pressure to provide the funds is instead falling on the shoulders of long-suffering Tajik citizens.
It is estimated that the entire project will cost $2.2 billion to complete. Getting the first two units up and going at half capacity will cost $590 million.
All this has been proceeding in the teeth of Uzbek opposition.
Rogun received a major diplomatic boost after consultants commissioned by the World Bank gave the project a green light, describing the dam as the best way to end the country’s electricity shortages. The feasibility report reviewed several proposed options and concluded that the highest — and therefore the most productive — dam could be safely built on the planned site and withstand even a powerful earthquake.
That did not reassure Tashkent.
Azimov, speaking in Almaty on July 14, 2014, at a regional conference devoted to the feasibility study, observed caustically that the World Bank report could be called “anything you want — an essay, a pre-project review, a student assignment — but certainly not professional, skilled and valued expertise.”
The dams will give Dushanbe substantial means to control what water reaches Uzbekistan, which argues that its food security stands to be put at risk. The initial construction stages would be the most perilous, Uzbekistan’s ambassador to the United Nations, Murad Askarov, argued in a 2012 article in the book Disaster by Design: The Aral Sea and Its Lessons for Sustainability.
“In order to impound a water reservoir with a volume of 14 cubic kilometers, the significant part of the flows of the Vakhsh River will have to be blocked for at least 8-10 years,” Askarov said. “Cutting off its flow will completely disrupt the long-term regulation of water flows in the region and will raise the already increasing water scarcity to a disastrous level.”
Proper collective use of water resources in Central Asia will, it is evident, require cordial communication among neighboring countries and consideration of each other’s interests. That is signally lacking at present.