Tajikistan launched the first unit of the Rogun hydropower dam on November 16, a move it had aspired to for nearly half a century.
The project for the embankment dam, to be the world’s tallest, commenced as far back as the mid-1970s but it came to a halt after the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991. Construction restarted in late October 2016, shortly after the announced death of Islam Karimov, the long-ruling autocrat of neighbouring Uzbekistan, who opposed the project, claiming it would reduce water flows to Uzbekistan's cotton fields. His successor, reform-minded Shavkat Mirziyoyev has dropped the Uzbek objections to the dam in a push for better regional cooperation.
Currently, the total capacity of Tajikistan’s hydropower plants amounts to 5,190 MW, but ageing infrastructure makes only 3,600MW of that capacity usable. The situation causes chronic winter electricity shortages for Central Asia’s poorest nation. The Rogun project envisages installing six hydropower turbines in all, with a capacity of 600MW each. Once fully operational, they would put an end to the winter power woes and open up potential for Tajikistan to become an energy exporter.
“Inscribed in golden letters”
“This historical date will be inscribed in golden letters in Tajikistan’s modern history and will be a source of pride for the next generation,” Tajik President Imomali Rakhmon said in a televised launch ceremony. However, despite his bold talk, some Tajik observers noted Rahmon might be already running out of funds for the rest of the project. The big launch event was likely primarily aimed at wooing potential future lenders and investors who might back the project, with the idea of demonstrating that Tajikistan is capable of successfully delivering on its promises.
At the same time, the Tajik leader is attempting to win back public support. The Tajik population has largely been demoralised throughout the recent crisis-driven years, marked by difficulties including banking sector woes.
Tajikistan in September last year raised $500mn from its inaugural eurobond, which priced at 7.125% for a 10-year term, to partly fund Rogun’s construction. Tajik officials indicated that they might issue more notes this year, but the possibility of that happening presently seems very remote.
The ex-Soviet country previously revealed plans to borrow $850mn across 2018-2020. The funds would be allocated for “the country's exit from a communication impasse, achieving energy independence and ensuring food security”. The overall financing is likely to cover part of the Rogun project. The investment is meant to not only end the country’s winter energy shortages, but to support its objective to become a regional energy exporter via the CASA-1000 project.
Italian construction conglomerate Salini Impregilo won a $3.9bn contract for the construction of the Rogun embankment dam.
“Road is still long”
Filippo Menga, a lecturer on human geography at Britain's University of Reading, told RFE/RL on November 15 that the inauguration of the dam’s first turbine was "only a first step of a construction process that will still take several years."
"And indeed, it is still unclear how the dam is going to be paid for and if construction works will ever come to an end, and this is something that with Rogun is always going to be an issue, given the turbulent story of the project and the many interruptions of construction works that it experienced in the past. The road is still long before the dam is going to generate vast amount of hydroelectricity and thus generate a profit," Menga added.
The Kremlin has shown some interest supporting the project and Tajik analyst Rustam Islambek told Vestnik Kavkaza that Tajik authorities were also hoping that Russia would agree to construct the Shurabad Hydroelectric Power Plant as part of a cascade of power plants on the Vakhsh river.
Meanwhile, November 16 was reportedly also scheduled to see a military operation in Tajikistan’s Pamir mountains, likely related to recent alleged crackdowns on the ethnic-Pamir population in the country.