PANNIER: Climate change brings neverending energy crisis to Kyrgyzstan

PANNIER: Climate change brings neverending energy crisis to Kyrgyzstan
The hydro plant at Toktogul provides 40% of Kyrgyzstan’s electricity output, but water levels at its reservoir have several times dropped to very worrying levels in recent years. / National Energy Holding, Kyrgyzstan
By Bruce Pannier September 27, 2023

Summer is only just over, but the people of Kyrgyzstan are already being served chilling warnings that winter will be colder and darker than usual with the country facing electricity and heating difficulties.

On July 20, Kyrgyz Energy Minister Taalaybek Ibrayev declared that it was necessary to declare a state of emergency for Kyrgyzstan’s energy sector that would last for more than three years. On July 24, Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov signed an order decreeing that the emergency regime would start on August 1 and last until December 31, 2026..

Ibrayev explained the need for the drastic measure. “There will be a shortage of three billion kilowatt hours [kWh] this year and next year it will increase,” he said, adding that “by 2026 the shortage could amount to five to six billion kWh”.

On September 9, Akylbek Japarov (no relation to Kyrgyzstan’s president), who serves as Chairman of Kyrgyzstan’s Cabinet of Ministers, posted on Facebook that Kyrgyz citizens needed to start saving energy now as shortages in the months ahead were already inevitable.

Ibrayev, speaking at a September 11 press conference, underlined that electricity cut-offs were very possible this winter.

Cause of the dilemma

Roughly 90% of Kyrgyzstan is covered by mountains, so its main source of domestic power production is hydropower. It accounts for around 90% of domestic electricity output, just as it does in neighbouring mountainous Tajikistan.

However, for Krygyzstan, this year has brought a third straight summer of drought. The drought has been so severe that Kyrgyzstan has been unable to release water from its Kirov reservoir to neighbouring Kazakhstan because water levels at the reservoir by late August had dropped to less than 3% of their normal level.

A state of emergency, meanwhile, was adopted in six districts of southern Kazakhstan’s Zhambyl Province that normally receive some 80% of their water from rivers coming out of Kyrgyzstan.

Kyrgyzstan simply does not have enough water. It’s going to be a problem for the country’s hydropower plants (HPPs) this coming autumn-winter.

Kyrgyzstan has agreements with Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, both of which are downstream from Kyrgyzstan, for electricity exports to Kyrgyz consumers.

Turkmenistan, moreover, started exporting electricity through Uzbekistan to Kyrgyzstan in August 2021 and this year is expected to supply some 1.6bn kWh.

Also, since April, Russia’s Inter RAO has been supplying electricity to Kyrgyzstan. It is contracted to export some 874mn kWh between April this year and March 2024.

The hope was that the range of electricity exports to Kyrgyzstan could enable the country to decrease the amount of water it releases from its reservoirs during the autumn-winter period for domestic power production. The release normally amounts to some 6-7bn cubic metres (bcm) during this period. Less generous releases are needed to provide an opportunity to replenish the reservoirs.

If all went to plan, the unreleased water would be available in the spring-summer period for agricultural lands in Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

Yet decreasing precipitation is leaving Kyrgyzstan’s reservoirs at alarmingly low levels. Water at the massive Toktogul reservoir on the Naryn River in Kyrgyzstan’s Jalalabad Province has dropped to very worrying levels several times in recent years.

The HPP at Toktogul provides some 40% of Kyrgyzstan’s electricity output. The reservoir holds some 19 bcm of water, but at one point in late March, it held only 7.73 bcm.

The so-called “dead zone,” the point at which the Toktogul HPP’s turbines would stop operating, is 5.5 bcm.

The water level on September 14 was 11.57 bcm, which was some 2 bcm less than forecast.

Coal the only option

The lack of water leaves Kyrgyzstan to depend on coal for heating this winter. On September 11, the Cabinet of Ministers imposed a temporary ban on exports of coal by road with the exception of consignments passing through two crossing points into giant neighbour China.

Kyrgyzstan is wary of being left without both water and coal for power generation this coming winter, thus most coal exports have been banned (Credit: Author unknown, cc-by-2.0).

The Cabinet also warned officials in the southern Batken and Osh provinces to closely monitor the price of coal and ensure residents were able to obtain supplies.

The same day the Ministry of Economics and Commerce said it would establish 549 “bases” around the country where coal would be for sale.

The coal-fired thermal power plant in Bishkek is to provide some 1.9bn kWh this autumn-winter season, according to Energy Minister Ibrayev.

The use of coal has been a last resort for Kyrgyzstan since independence in 1991, and the effects of burning coal during winter-time are becoming increasingly clear: Bishkek is regularly among the world’s top 10 cities for air pollution.

Disappearing glaciers

Kyrgyzstan’s water problem, and hence its electricity problem, are likely to become worse.

Nurlan Nabiyev, head of the Agriculture Ministry’s Water Resources Service, said Kyrgyzstan could expect its glaciers to melt in the near future.

Speaking about the shortage of water in the Kirov, which spills in the Talas River and flows into Kazakhstan, Nabiyev explained: “There are no glaciers left in the Talas River basin.”

Nabiyev thus observed that the Talas River could no longer depend on glacier melt for water and levels in the Kirov reservoir in the spring and summer would depend almost entirely on winter snowfall.

Curiously, chairman of the Cabinet of Ministers Japarov said he believed that hydropower was still the answer to Kyrgyzstan’s electricity problems.

Japarov said in his September 9 Facebook post that by the end of 2026, Kyrgyzstan will have built 48 new HPPs and electricity shortages would no longer be an issue .

The dire forecasts for Kyrgyzstan’s disappearing glaciers indicate, however, that within decades, at most, hydropower will no longer be a major contributor to Kyrgyzstan’s electricity production.

The imposed three-year energy sector state of emergency might seem like a drastic measure, but climate change is already causing huge problems in Central Asia—and Kyrgyzstan’s energy crisis looks set to last far longer than three years.