By Aynur Jafarova
With just three or four months left to the cold days of the year, the issue of electricity is taking a center stage in the public discussion in Tajikistan.
As the cold days approach day by day, the shortage of electricity becomes more critical in the country.
Tajikistan faces electricity shortage in winter. So, rural consumers receive electricity on an average of five to seven hours per day. The energy deficit in fall forces many enterprises to work only seasonally.
Problems with natural gas supplies have made a number of energy-intensive industrial plants such as Tajikcement and the Tajik Aluminum Company, TALCO, halt their operations.
Constructing Rogun hydropower plant (HPP) could resolve the energy-related problems.
Tajikistan believes that the Rogun HPP will ensure its energy independence and serve as a tool for economic growth. The project will enable Tajikistan to produce roughly 13 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity annually, meaning the country can meet its domestic demand and even become a major electricity exporter in the region.
However, the construction of the Rogun HPP is not an easy task for Tajikistan, which suffers from economic and political problems, caused by neighboring countries, in particular, Uzbekistan, with which Tajikistan has problematic relations.
Uzbekistan has criticized the World Bank's recently- published report on Key Issues for Consideration of the Proposed Rogun Hydropower Project and use of transboundary water resources.
Speaking at a recent meeting of the representatives of Central Asia in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan's First deputy Prime-Minister and Finance Minister Rustam Azimov announced the position of his country on the construction of Rogun HPP.
He said Uzbekistan did not participate in previous stages of the construction of Rogun HPP, as it considered that the organization of the expertise, selection of consultants, financing of the stages, assignment of technical tasks and other important parameters fall short of international standards of independence, impartiality, objectiveness, and transparency of assessment of the project.
Azimov noted the Tajik government was entrusted to organize a tender for selection of the expertise, which is financed by the World Bank, notwithstanding Tajikistan is an interested side in the project.
"Professional expertise should include assessment of potentially negative impact of the project on environmental balance and water flow regime at Amudarya river basin, as well as analyses of alternative projects," he added.
The Rogun Dam, the construction plan of which dates back to the 1960s, was one of the three proposed hydro power projects on the Vakhsh River. The three projects - Nurek, Sangtuda and Rogun - were intended for expanding the irrigable lands downstream along the Amu Darya River in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan Soviet Socialist Republics as well as providing electricity for industrial development in Tajikistan SSR during the Soviet times.
The Nurek and Sangtuda projects were accomplished but Rogun is still underway. Meanwhile, the technical design of the Rogun Dam differs from other projects: it is planned to be 335 meters high with capacity of 3,600 megawatts per year. If constructed, the Rogun Dam will be the tallest dam in the world.
There have been several offers for the construction of the Rogun Dam. In August 2011, the World Bank proposed to construct a dam with the height of 120 meters. However, Tajikistan rejected the proposal. In 2004, Russia's RUSAL company proposed to construct it with a height of 285 meters and capacity of 2,400 megawatts. That proposal was rejected as well.
Azimov believes the documents, prepared by the World Bank, do not include the major concerns of the countries, located in downstream, in particular Uzbekistan.
Uzbekistan claims the project of construction of Rogun HPP is fully outdated in terms of technical, construction and ecologic safety norms.
The Uzbek official also said being the highest dam in the world Rogun HPP is planned to be built in the area of a tectonic break on the huge salt dome, and the project-related documents contain a number of flaws, defects and failures, which can lead to bad decisions, and is dangerous with extremely serious catastrophic consequences for whole Central Asian region.
Azimov's concerns have strengthened by the data released by the US Geologic Survey, which indicate over 250 earthquakes with a magnitude of 4 or higher have taken place since the beginning of 2013 in the area where the Rogun HPP is planned for construction.
"Billion tons of water can destruct everything on its way and impact lives of millions of people," the Uzbek official warned.
Azimov believes due to the impact of the Rogun HPP on the Vakhsh River and, accordingly, to the Amudarya River, the downstream countries would face devastating water, food and environmental problems. Also, the project will impact ecologic balance of the region, including in Aral Sea Basin, sustainable development of Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan.
"The effects of the Rogun and Nurek water reservoirs on energy regime threaten a water deficit in the volume of 11.5 cubic km in vegetation period," he said.
Azimov warned the water shortage problem would lead to conflicts among the downstream countries.
"The decrease of water flow in Amudarya by 7.4 cubic km a year means that the agriculture sector will lose 385,000 hectares of land and the figure can rise to 500,000 hectares in drought period. Over 9,500 farmers or 1.5 million people with their families and workers can lose their income," he stressed.
The experts from the New York University and Northern Dakota University in the U.S. note that the water deficit, occurred as a result of construction of Rogun HPP, Uzbekistan will lose $600 million each year only in agriculture sector, GDP will decrease by 2 percent and 340,000 people will lose their jobs. Also, Uzbekistan will not be able to use 506,000 hectares of land (about 11 percent of irrigated lands). The loss of agriculture sector can reach $1 billion during dry years.
If Tajikistan and Uzbekistan agree on energy cooperation, electricity might become cheaper, while irrigation could be better managed. However, such a scenario appears unlikely given that the project is getting more political day by day.