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Qishloq Ovozi

Central Asia is known for many reasons but two things stand out in coverage of the region these days -- the geostrategic location in terms of security and its energy resources.

Coverage of Central Asia’s energy resources almost always features adjectives such as “vast,” “huge,” and “massive.”

Central Asia has oil and natural gas, Kazakhstan is the world’s leading uranium producer (more than 20,000 tons in 2013), much has been made of the hydropower potential in the southeastern mountains, and then there is the great promise of developing solar power in the south and wind power in the northern steppe.

So why is coal such a rapidly developing source of power domestically?

The reasons vary from country to country, and while some reasons are perhaps understandable, other reasons are the result of failed inter-regional politics and policies that prioritize exports over domestic needs.

But first, how “massive” is Central Asia’s energy potential?

For the purpose of comparison, I’m choosing France, despite far greater industrialization, because its population is roughly the same as that of Central Asia (if the 4-8 million Central Asian migrant laborers were back home). That would be, some 66 million people. *

My sources are the U.S. Energy Information Agency and the BP statistical review of world energy from June 2013, so if you disagree with these figures send your hate mail to them, not to me. And I know most people don’t like a lot of numbers, so I’ll keep this brief.

Mountainous Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are Central Asia’s hydropower kings. They have an estimated combined potential, barely tapped, to generate some 460 billion kWh of electricity per year. France uses about 500 billion kWh annually.

Kazakhstan has the lion’s share of Central Asia’s oil reserves but combined with Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan they have about 37 billion barrels of oil. France consumes about 1.7 million barrels per day.

Turkmenistan has the bulk of natural gas but combined with Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan they have some 19.9 trillion cubic meters of gas. France uses some 43 billion cubic meters annually.

And for what it’s worth, the Uzbek government website says the country has solar power potential to generate as much energy as some 50 billion barrels of oil equivalent.

So there seems to be enough to go around for the people of Central Asia.

Okay, so why is coal production/consumption rising in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan?

The easy explanation is there is a lot of coal in Central Asia and it fed Soviet-era thermal power plants across the region except in Turkmenistan, which uses almost exclusively natural gas for its power. Many of those plants, which in some cases date back to the 1950s and 1960s, are still operating today.

Kazakhstan is the most interesting -- to me anyway. Called the “oil baron” of Central Asia, at least 64 percent, and by some estimates nearly 80 percent, of Kazakhstan’s electricity is produced by coal-fired plants.

The “massive” Ekibastuz coalfield in northern Kazakhstan has an estimated 13 billion tons of coal, and together with the country’s other coal deposits, give Kazakhstan about 4 percent of the world’s coal.

Kazakhstan’s industrial northeast and the Almaty commercial hub of the country in the southeast are far from the oil and gas fields of western Kazakhstan. Oil and gas are starting to make their way eastward, in large part due to newly constructed pipelines that continue on to China.

But it’s not enough to fill the needs of eastern Kazakhstan, where most of the country’s people live.

The Ekibastuz-1 and Ekibatus-2 thermal plants provide power to the capital Astana and industrial cities such as Pavlodar, Karaganda, and Ekibastuz.

Work has started on a new thermal plant near the shore of Lake Balkhash. Once completed it will help supply electricity south to the Almaty area. The Balkhash plant is a compromise, substituting for a planned nuclear power plant at Balkhash that was scrapped after a public outcry.

Kazakhstan’s coal consumption rose from some 87 million tons in 2008 to some 94.5 million tons by 2012.

Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have the same reason for increasing their coal production and consumption: they are tired of purchasing gas from neighboring Uzbekistan.

Uzbekistan has repeatedly cut off gas to the two neighbors, sometimes for debts the two countries regularly incur, and sometimes to show displeasure with political decisions in Bishkek and Dushanbe.

Tajik MPs Mahmadsharif Haqdodov and Haqnazar Boboev visited RFE/RL's Tajik Service, Ozodi, last September and said straight out the reason for switching to coal was the problem negotiating gas with Uzbekistan.

Both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have deposits of coal, Tajikistan especially with 4.5 billion tons. The Tajik embassy website claims the country has coal reserves “sufficient for about 200 years.”

Tajikistan announced in early 2013 that it was converting its plants and factories to power from coal-fueled plants, and started upgrading existing thermal power plants, such as the one in Dushanbe. As of July last year the government claimed all the country’s major enterprises were using coal for power.

Between 2008 and 2011, Tajikistan’s coal consumption was almost static at around 230,000 to 235,000 tons. In 2013, Tajikistan produced 518,000 tons of coal.

Kyrgyzstan has followed Tajikistan’s lead.

Kyrgyzstan consumed 1.1 million tons of coal in 2008 and in 2011 (last EIA figure available) used some 1.55 million tons, a good portion of it imported from Kazakhstan. In 2013, Kyrgyzstan produced some 1.425 million tons of coal, which still leaves the country short by about 500,000 tons of being able to fuel thermal plants in the northern part of the country.

Uzbekistan is a mystery. Just over a decade ago gas was so cheap and so plentiful that when I asked a friend in the Tashkent area one day why he left his gas stove burning he told me “gas is cheap but it’s hard to find matches.”

Gas is scarce now for some reason (Uzbekistan has some 1.1 trillion cubic meters of gas), and Uzbekistan is also increasing production and consumption of coal. Coal consumption was actually going down from nearly 3.9 million tons in 2008 to 3.2 million tons in 2012.

That has changed quickly. Last November the first stage of the Angren coal production complex project was completed. Production is expected to double at the huge open-pit mining site and reach 6.4 million tons annually. Of that, some 4.6 million tons will be used as fuel in the Novo-Angren thermal power plant.

Uzbek officials said the additional power from the Angren plant would free up some 800 million cubic meters of gas annually, which apparently hasn't started yet judging from recent reports of gas shortages in Uzbekistan.

State plans call for raising the share of coal in Uzbekistan’s fuel balance from the current 3.9 percent to 11 to 12 percent by 2016.

I guess they don’t show those pictures of Chinese cities on smoggy days.

Coal is certainly abundant and capable of filling the power needs of the Central Asian countries. But with all the options available, from cleaner burning fossil fuels to renewable energy sources, it is strange so much money (several billion dollars) is being invested into developing the coal industry.

This is due to the governments' policy of exporting lucrative energy resources to get the money and leaving their own people to depend on a cheaper and dirtier source of energy.

Coming soon: a look at Central Asian energy exports.

-- Bruce Pannier. (Yerzhan Karabek of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, Iskander Aliyev and Soljida Dzhakhfarova of RFE/RL's Tajik Service, and Alisher Sidikov of RFE/RL's Uzbek Service helped in preparing this report.)
*Uzbekistan – 30 million, Kazakhstan – 17 million, Tajikistan – 8 million, Kyrgyzstan – 5.75 million, and Turkmenistan – 5 million
The seemingly inexorable southern advance of the Amu-Darya river has caused all sorts of problems for Afghan villagers like Ghulam Rasool. (screen grab)
The countdown to the drawdown of foreign forces in Afghanistan at the end of this year is on. Afghanistan’s neighbors are already seeking allies in Afghanistan to act as a buffer between them and the anticipated decline in stability.

Not surprisingly, these allies are usually their ethnic cousins living in Afghanistan. Turkmenistan has such allies – the ethnic Turkmen just over the border. The problem is, some of the Afghan Turkmen have reason to view Turkmenistan as an enemy, rather than a friend.

In the very southeast corner of Turkmenistan, for some 100 kilometers, the country is divided from Afghanistan by one of Central Asia’s biggest rivers -- the Amu-Darya. This section of the Amu-Darya is moving southward. According to some Afghan Turkmen, the river has pushed several kilometers south in just a couple of generations.

This shift has washed away some of the many villages located along the river’s edge in this arid region. Wooded areas from what was once the Afghan side of the river remain above the water, forming the core of islands in the Amu-Darya. Often these islands are good grazing land when the water level is low enough to herd cattle onto them.

But, Turkmenistan believes everything up to the south bank of the Amu-Darya belongs to Turkmenistan, including the islands.

That is a big problem for the Afghan Turkmen.

RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service, Azatlyk, spoke with some of the Afghan Turkmen from the area along the Amu-Darya.

A surprising number of them told tales of being taken to jail by Turkmen police, border guards and/or security forces after being caught grazing their herds on disputed territory. And despite being ethnic Turkmen like their captors, they were treated roughly in prison.

The father and brother of a man named Saidmurat lamented he had already been in a Turkmen prison for seven years after being apprehended by that country's border guards while grazing his cattle. His brother Akmurat said they hope for Saidmurat’s return soon so "he can be reunited with his wife and child."

Another man said he had been arrested when he was grazing his cattle "in the woods" on one of the shoals in the river. He said Turkmenistan's soldiers and security forces killed some of the cattle and threw the carcasses into the river before arresting him and his friends for being on land the Afghan Turkmen insisted was "our land, our woods."

The man also said he and his friends were tortured while in prison.

Abdul Ghaffar was arrested for a different reason and imprisoned in Turkmenistan. He told a similar story of abuse. VIDEO

WATCH: An Afghan Villager Says Turkmen Authorities Abused Him
Afghan Villager Says He Was Tortured By Turkmen Authorities
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Abdul Ghaffar also recounted when another person was tortured in the prison.

WATCH: Alleged Abuse By Turkmen Authorities
Afghan Villager Discusses Alleged Abuse By Turkmen Authorities
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Villagers told Azatlyk a man recently returned minus one ear after being in a Turkmenistan prison.

To be fair, not all the Afghan Turkmen had horror stories about being in prison in Turkmenistan. One man said his biggest complaint was that the one cup of tea he received every day was never hot. “When I am arrested next time I expect hot tea,” he said.

Every one of the people speaking to Azatlyk said they were arrested while on disputed territory that they all claimed was rightfully their land. One man claimed the area where he was caught was the same place the village he was born in once stood.

Most were freed under amnesties regularly given by Turkmenistan’s presidents to mark Independence Day, the end of Ramadan or some other occasion.

None seemed grateful for the amnesty. They were bitter toward Turkmenistan’s government for unjustly, in their view, arresting and incarcerating them.

Of course the cause of this problem remains. The Amu-Darya is still moving south and eating away Afghan villages.

Qishloq Ovozi has already noted that, in the past, Turkmenistan’s government was providing some aid in shoring up the southern bank of the Amu-Darya. That help seems to have been suspended, leaving the Afghan Turkmen in the area to fend as best they can.

Ghulam Rasool, who described himself as a "group leader," recounted that it is not only homes and farmland the Amu-Darya is threatening.

WATCH: Problems For An Afghan Village On The Turkmen Border
Afghan Village Chief Describes Problems On The Turkmenistan Border
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Some of the Afghan Turkmen have moved further south where the land is mainly desert. They live in small homes built with material obtained mainly from the charity of others in the region. And they say the government might push them off that land.

There might be, and most probably is, natural gas there (part of the Amu-Darya Basin structure, "which contains some of the world's largest gas and condensate fields," according to Tethys Petroleum).

In previous articles, Qishloq Ovozi has attempted to shed light on the vulnerability of the area along the Turkmen-Afghan border. We've mentioned that the frontier between the two countries is not well watched, that the Taliban and their allies are in the region already, that Turkmenistan's government, or at least the country's forces along the border, seem to be unsure what policy to take toward the Taliban.

We've also seen Afghan Turkmen who say they are prepared to fight the Taliban and keep them from crossing onto Turkmen soil, but also are who asking for help from Turkmenistan.

In response to an earlier article on Qarqeen, a reader calling themselves "Former Afghan Turkmen" said in the comments section that some of the ethnic Turkmen of Afghanistan "have been Taliban, and then they became anti-Taliban, and they will become Taliban again."

That is probably true. It’s also true the some of those Afghan Turkmen jailed in Turkmenistan might have been doing something more than grazing cattle when they were apprehended, narcotics smuggling, for example, is common in this area.

But the stories they tell other people on the Afghan side of the border of being jailed and beaten in Turkmenistan are not going to help convince anyone Turkmenistan is a better option for an ally than the Taliban.

And for Turkmenistan, the expense of constructing a solid retaining wall on the Afghan side of the river could earn them some gratitude and loyalty from their fellow Turkmen in Afghanistan.

-- Bruce Pannier

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About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.

Bruce Pannier
Bruce Pannier

Content draws on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad.

The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.