David Trilling in Varzob, Tajikistan -
Under a blistering sun, Lilu Juin works as one of a large team of Chinese labourers constructing a modern highway linking Dushanbe, Tajikistan's capital, to the northern Fergana Valley. Ethnically a Han Chinese from eastern China, he is one of approximately 30,000 Chinese workers in Tajikistan, he says. They are here to build roads and other infrastructure projects that will help drag the country into the 21st century - and provide China and other neighbouring countries with the transport routes and electricity supplies to support their own thriving economies.
Tajikistan, the most impoverished of the former Soviet republics, is emerging from almost two decades of stagnation to become a major player in the great water and energy games of the 21st century. After a devastating five-year war from 1992-1997, in which at least 50,000 people died, the country is slowly attracting the interest of power-hungry neighbours who see Tajikistan's rivers as a possible solution to their energy woes.
However, with a massive exodus of working-age men and emerging notoriety as a major drug-trafficking route, massive investment might not be enough to save the country from future instability or civil conflict.
The Middle Kingdom in Central Asia
China sees its tiny neighbour as a transportation corridor and is investing to upgrade its highway system and link Tajikistan with the rest of Central and South Asia and even the Middle East, part of the mythic Silk Road of old.
Attracting resources from Central Asia and opening up local markets to Chinese goods, the Chinese construction projects are part of a broad network the Chinese government and other countries are building in order to help industry and commerce expand in the region.
The state-owned China Road and Bridge Corporation has projects all around the country. Road construction, one of Tajikistan's major infrastructure development projects, is part of the estimated $720m in Chinese investment here, according to the Chinese news service Xinhua. China presented much of the money to the Tajik government in the form of long-term, low-interest loans. Since the opening of the Kulma Pass between China and Tajikistan in 2004, trucks of Chinese merchandise and equipment have become a common site on Tajikistan's derelict network of mountain roads and isolated passes.
Last year, China Road began a three-mile tunnel in the Sughd Mountains, in a northwestern region along the border with Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. In mountainous Tajikistan, where passes are closed for months at a time, tunnels are an expensive, but vital, way to keep goods and services moving. And China is not alone. The Iranian government is helping construct a $39m tunnel along the northern route to keep the way open all year. And the US government has just completed construction of a $37m bridge linking Tajikistan and Afghanistan. The bridge almost halves the overland distance from Tajikistan to an ocean port, opening this poor, landlocked country to increasing trade and industry. And the Asian Development Bank is paving the dirt track linking Dushanbe directly to the Kyrgyz border through the impoverished Rasht Valley for $100m.
Some view the current international aid effort in Tajikistan with a degree of cynicism. A US researcher who asked not to be named said influential Asian neighbours such as China are simply trying to purchase goodwill in a volatile region. He also sees Central Asia as a "dumping ground" for cheap Chinese goods, perhaps one day to be exchanged for electricity.
Neeraj Jain, the country representative of the Asian Development Bank (ADB), says that donor countries plan to turn Tajikistan into both a provider and conduit for electricity to neighbouring countries, creating an electricity passageway between South and Central Asia.
Tajikistan has about 4.4 gigawatts (GWs) of annual generating capacity, about 90% of which is hydroelectric. Through the ADB project, its summertime surplus of almost 1,500 gigawatt-hours will be exported to Afghanistan. Along with several other donors, ADB will spend $56m in low-interest, long-term loans to build the infrastructure to carry Central Asian energy to Afghanistan by 2009 from the Sang Tuda hydroelectric dam in Tajikistan, currently under construction by a Russian firm.
Eventually, Jain said he hopes to see electricity exported from both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to hungry markets in Afghanistan and Pakistan - though no one mentions Dushanbe's own problems with blackouts.
"We hope by 2009 to have a 500-KW line from Tajikistan to Peshawar [Pakistan] through Kabul," says Jain. "It is very ambitious, but possible." Pakistan and India have power deficiencies during the hot months when air conditioners are most needed, while at the same time Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have surpluses from their melting glaciers. The plan will be discussed at a meeting of regional energy ministers in Kabul in September.
This is all part of a Chinese-sponsored long-term project. "The Chinese are helping build a 500-KW transmission line from the south, around Dushanbe, to near Khojand, in the north of Tajikistan," says Jain. "Then there is a plan to build another line from the north to Kyrgyzstan," connecting lines into Kazakhstan. At that point, "there will be a network of power lines connecting Kazakhstan to Pakistan," and all the countries in between. "These lines skip Uzbekistan, of course, because these countries are all having trouble with Uzbekistan."
Tajik Prime Minister Akil Akilov confirmed the plans at a recent meeting of regional officials in Kazakhstan. "For further development we should integrate, use the potential energy resources of Tajikistan not only for the benefit of Tajikistan but also for benefit of the entire Central Asian region," he said.
Unfortunately for power-hungry China, there are, as of yet, no plans to include it in this giant power grid.
The hydropower potential of Tajikistan is nearly limitless, or so one would think given the grand building plans along the Vakhsh River valley. Already home to the world's tallest dam at Nurek, at least four more dams are proposed or are at varying stages of completion, the work mostly of Russian and Iranian investors.
With even one more dam on the scale of Nurek, Tajikistan would have a net surplus of energy year-round. But at least one of the proposed projects has been under construction since the 1970s.
Certainly, working in Tajikistan presents some challenges. Corruption is rampant and international investors complain of a labyrinthine bureaucracy where ministers and their minions expect their palms generously greased for any international investment projects to break ground. A senior diplomat at the US embassy in Dushanbe complained of significant delays with the Afghan-Tajik bridge project due to Tajik officials' unwillingness to cooperate based on original contract prices for cement.
The Chinese, it seems, have found their way around such roadblocks. Comparing the Chinese road work all around Tajikistan with the US-sponsored bridge, one blogger notes: "It's great to see foreign aid money going to fund something so needed...But if you compare the US effort - a military bridge that can also handle, in some distant future, trucks going between two pretty minor economies - with China's very visible and, to the average Tajik, much more useful road repair work, China comes out winning the public relations game by a mile."
When the roads are finished, intuits the blogger, "they will forever be referred to as the 'Chinese roads.'"
With roughly half of working-age males now living abroad, that is if anyone is left to notice.
Send comments to The Editor
Juha Kähkönen of the IMF - The Caucasus and Central Asia (CCA) region continues to navigate a wave of external shocks – the slump in global prices of oil and other key commodities, the slowdown ... more
Naubet Bisenov in Almaty - Caucasus and Central Asian (CCA) countries need to tighten their monetary policy to anchor inflation expectations, but excess tightening may weaken financial ... more