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Central Asia: Tajikistan Hopes To Avoid Another Winter Of Power Shortages

Blasts divert Tajikistan's Vakhsh river to make way for the Sangtuda 1 hydroelectric plant (ITAR-TASS) October 9, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Tajik officials say an agreement signed last week to bring Turkmen electricity to Tajikistan via Uzbekistan will alleviate the severe power shortages Tajiks face each winter.

But many ordinary Tajiks say they do not have high hopes for better conditions this winter, because an earlier, similar energy agreement with Kyrgyzstan was never realized.

At the beginning of October, Tajikistan began a winter schedule for electricity distribution, under which households and offices receive electricity for only two periods a day, in the mornings and evenings, totaling six to eight hours.

The authorities have announced that exceptions are made for the main hospitals, government offices, and "strategically important sites."

While Tajiks are used to media reports and government speeches about their homeland's vast electricity resources and "bright future," they are still dealing with the prospect of a dark winter with limited electricity supplies.

Gulchehra Dehqonova, a university professor who lives on the outskirts of the northern Tajik city of Khujand, says she cannot properly prepare for her classes because of the shortage of electricity.

"As a professor I need to prepare for my lessons. I need to write my lecture and read additional materials for that; I need to watch the news to get up-to-date information before entering the class and facing the auditorium," Dehqonova says. "Under the current circumstances it has become almost impossible."

Ironically, Tajikistan has a greater hydroelectric power capacity than any other country in Central Asia. It reportedly has the potential to produce more than 300 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity per year.

Yet Tajikistan is the only country in the region that faces a severe power shortage for more than half the year -- every year -- leaving entire towns and villages without power for long periods and sometimes for several days.

Industrial Demands

Mirzosharif Isomiddinov, the head of the Tajik parliament's Committee on Energy, Industry, and Communication, says that up to 50 percent of the electricity in Tajikistan is consumed by an aluminum plant. That is the main reason why Tajikistan -- despite its natural energy resources -- cannot provide enough electricity for its people, he says.

Last winter was one of the most difficult; power was cut off even in the city center of the capital, Dushanbe, for weeks. Officials claimed that important engineering work at a power plant, as well as low water levels in major rivers, caused the energy shortage.

Tajik officials have promised that the country will have a better situation this winter.

President Emomali Rahmon announced on October 4 that Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan have agreed on the supply and transmission of Turkmen electricity to Tajikistan. According to the new agreement, Tajikistan will import 1.2 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity annually from Turkmenistan for the next three years.

Many ordinary Tajiks, however, have been very cautious in welcoming the news. There were similar talks last year about importing electricity from Kyrgyzstan through Uzbekistan. Some Tajiks had hoped that their long and dark winter nights would finally come to an end with the influx of Kyrgyz electricity. But their dream of a Kyrgyz solution to their energy problem was not realized.

Tajik officials never fully explained to people why the plan was not put into action. There were reports that Uzbekistan did not have the capacity to transmit its neighbors' electrical power in the first place.

Improving Capacity

Lawmaker Isomiddinov says that Turkmenistan definitely generates enough power for export, and that Uzbekistan has started repairing its energy transmission networks to transfer the Turkmen electricity to Tajikistan.

Besides, Tajikistan is improving its own energy-producing infrastructure, Isomiddinov said.

"In December the first block of the Sangtuda-1 hydropower plant will start producing power. It will produce electricity of up to 4 million kilowatt-hours," he says. Another plant, the Yovon power station, "is being renovated and will start producing power in mid-November. The capacity of the Dushanbe power plant is also being expanded."

Tajikistan has several hydropower plants that currently produce some 17 billion kilowatt-hours annually.

A large facility is under construction in Roghun, in eastern Tajikistan. At a height of 335 meters, the hydroelectric dam would be the tallest in the world. However, after disagreements between Tajik and Russian investors, little progress is being made at the site.

Two other moderately large plants -- Sangtuda-1 and -2 in the southern part of the country -- are being built with Russian and Iranian financing. Several smaller hydroelectric facilities under construction elsewhere in the country, including in the eastern Pamir and Garm valleys.

A 'Bright Future'

Tajik leaders use every opportunity to mention that in the near future, Tajikistan will be exporting electricity to almost all its neighbors.

While Tajiks are used to media reports and government speeches about their homeland's vast electricity resources and "bright future," they are still dealing with the prospect of a dark winter with limited electricity supplies.

Conditions are better for their Central Asian neighbors, who have less resources. Kazakhstan has not had trouble with power shortages since 1999. Households in Turkmenistan receive most of their electric power free of charge.

Kyrgyzstan exports electricity to some countries -- including Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan -- and has not experienced severe power shortages in recent years. This year, however, Kyrgyzstan is predicting some difficulties due to the low level of water in the Naryn River, where the Toktogul power station is located.

The situation in Uzbekistan -- especially in rural areas -- is to some extent similar to Tajikistan. Although Tashkent has not introduced a winter electricity-distribution schedule, power is regularly cut off without warning for several hours a day.

As winter approaches, the prices for stoves, coal, and wood have been going up in Tajik markets. Saodat, who sells stoves in a Khujand market, says that people install wood- and coal-burning stoves in high-rise apartments and use them both for heating their flats and cooking food. "There is no electricity, no gas," Saodat says. "This year people have to use stoves even on the ninth and 10th floors. It would be freezing cold there, otherwise."

Many well-to-do Tajiks buy special power generators that produce enough electricity for one household. Those who cannot afford a foreign-made generator usually opt for a homemade device -- ignoring electricians' and fire departments' warnings about safety risks.

Long-forgotten oil lamps have returned to Tajik markets once again, and candles -- long used only for romantic dinners -- are back in fashion for a different reason.

People say they are used to getting prepared for the dark and cold winter ahead, and are not holding too much hope that their government leaders will keep their promises and solve the problem for them.

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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the region. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate and reintegrate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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