Tajikistan has jump-started construction of the controversial Rogun dam – a project seen as important for both the country’s energy security and President’s Emomali Rahmon’s popularity – following the death of its main opponent, Uzbek dictator Islam Karimov, but it may have jumped too soon.
On October 29, Tajikistan kicked off construction of the controversial 3,600MW project on the Vakhsh River, poised to be the tallest dam in the world at 335m. The decision to proceed with the dam’s construction is President Emomali Rahmon’s attempt at bolstering his waning popularity.
“Rahmon has significantly trampled his own image [in Tajikistan] mostly due to his treatment of the Islamic Renaissance Party [IRP] and the constitutional amendments that made him president for life,” Farkhod Aminjonov, deputy director of the Almaty-based Central Asia Institute for Strategic Studies, tells bne IntelliNews.
The IRP was the only major opposition party in Tajikistan until Rahmon’s crackdown on the party in 2015, which eventually led to the party’s banning and the imprisonment of many of its members for life. Rahmon’s witchhunt was accompanied by various bans on Islamic customs that alienated the country’s Muslim majority.
Launching the dam’s construction could, in theory, improve Rahmon’s standing with the Tajiks, even if the poor country, bereft of its own money to fund it, never pushes past the initial stage of construction.
Supporters of the project also believe it is a vital for the country’s energy security. “Without Rogun, Tajikistan’s hydropower sector will simply die,” Aminjonov believes.
Currently, the total capacity of Tajikistan’s hydropower plants amounts to 5,190 MW. But because of ageing infrastructure, Tajikistan is only able to use a mere 3,600MW of that capacity, which leads to chronic winter electricity shortages. The Rogun project envisages installing six additional hydropower turbines, with a capacity of 600MW each, that, once fully operational, will put an end to the winter woes.
If completed, the project will also likely support Tajikistan’s goal of exporting electricity within the framework of the CASA-1000 project, which envisages the country, along with neighbouring Kyrgyzstan, supplying their summer electricity surpluses to Pakistan via Afghanistan. Work on CASA-1000 launched in May.
More immediately, the dam could help solve Tajikistan’s problems with the 2,600MW Nurek hydroelectric plant, the main source of electricity in the country, whose water reservoir is also located along the Vaksh River.
“The water entering the reservoir flows along with various minerals and river clays which clog up the bottom of the reservoir, leading the bottom of the reservoir to grow taller year by year,” Aminjonov says. In several decades, the reservoir could be incapable of holding water to sustain the plant’s electricity production.
The Rogun dam would grant Tajikistan the ability to “regulate the flow of water into Nurek’s reservoir, preventing it from filling up with ores and minerals”, Aminjonov says.
The trouble is, works on the dam would take “16 years in the best-case scenario”. That means, “construction cannot be delayed for another 10 years”, as irreparable damage to Tajikistan’s energy sector would then take place before the dam’s launch.
Bickering between Tajikistan and neighbouring Uzbekistan is to blame for most of the delays so far.
It is no accident that construction has been launched just a few months after the death of Karimov, who had long tried to block the project over fears it would affect the irrigation of lucrative cotton crops in Uzbekistan.
Rogun is now regarded as mainly a Tajik venture, but prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union it was originally intended to be a regional energy project, involving Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Aminjonov argues the project is also vital for easing Uzbekistan’s own energy problems, as it would allow Tajikistan to supply power to its neighbour.
Current Uzbek acting president Shavkat Mirziyoyev appears willing to put an end to bilateral conflicts. He has already met Rahmon and has not yet openly condemned Rogun. But no official agreements were signed, no formal promises have been made.
“I’m sure there most likely was an unofficial unspoken agreement between Mirziyoyev and Rahmon on Tajikistan’s decision to begin construction,” Aminjonov said. “[But] Mirziyoyev’s silence on the issue in no way means that everything will go on perfectly and smoothly in the future.”
The Uzbek interim president could be playing nice, establishing friendly relations with neighbours for the sole purpose of focusing on Uzbekistan’s internal issues in the lead up to official presidential elections in December, where he is expected to win. “Once [Mirziyoyev] officially becomes president, his further attitude towards Rogun will be a major determinant for the project’s future,” says Aminjonov
Uzbekistan’s acquiescence will be needed to secure international funding for the project. With total costs estimated between $3bn and $6bn, Rogun’s funding by international financial institutions is dependent on Tashkent’s willingness to publicly agree with the World Bank’s established feasibility study on the project.
Uzbekistan uses huge amounts of water for its cotton farming but it has been cutting down the areas of its land designated for cotton, replacing them with relatively more water-efficient fruits and vegetables. Tashkent nearly halved the lands allocated for cotton between the 1990s and today and aims to free up an additional 175,000 hectares of farmland by 2020.
Yet the country still consumes huge amounts of water because it wastes so much. “The real problem is tied to Uzbekistan’s archaic irrigation system, since much of the water [from the Vaksh River] never even reaches the agricultural fields,” Aminjonov notes. The ongoing deterioration of the irrigation system can be observed in the fact that “Uzbekistan experienced less water-related issues in the 90s despite producing higher volumes of cotton”.
Unless Uzbejistan can fix these problems, it may continue to oppose the Rogun dam. “Unless [Tashkent] solves its irrigation problems in the near future, Rogun will only become an irritant for Uzbekistan’s agriculture - a condition Uzbekistan won’t accept,” argues Aminjonov.