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Tajikistan's Roghun Dam, Which For Years Generated Only Controversy, Begins Producing Electricity

The dam sits on the Vakhsh River.
The dam sits on the Vakhsh River.

It took more than 40 years, billions of dollars, and countless tons of concrete, but Tajikistan's Roghun hydropower plant is starting to deliver on a small part of its promise.

It's only the first step, but the initial phase of the ambitious national project has been ceremoniously brought online. Currently standing at 75 meters high, enough to begin generating electricity, the dam will ultimately reach a height of 335 meters and be the world's tallest dam.

That is precisely what Soviet engineers envisioned when they began toying with the idea of building a dam on the Vakhsh River under Stalin's rule. But the dream of realizing the project, despite construction beginning in the mid-70s, was long deferred.

Contributing to the delay were funding and technical difficulties, the breakup of the Soviet Union, the Tajik civil war, mother nature, and objections from downstream countries amid UN fears that the dam could contribute to future regional water wars.

When the launch ceremony took place on November 16, however, representatives of the project's most vocal critic, Uzbekistan, were among the foreign guests in attendance alongside the dam's most ardent proponent, Tajik President Emomali Rahmon.

Tajikistan Inaugurates Mega-Dam
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Towering Obstacles

Over the years, Uzbekistan often expressed concerns that the dam would hamper the flow of water that feeds its crucially important cotton crops.

As hostilities rose, Uzbekistan often used its transit routes as leverage against landlocked Tajikistan by closing its borders and blocking highways and railroads.

Tashkent also repeatedly blocked Tajikistan from importing electricity from Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan via Uzbekistan, leaving Tajikistan facing severe power shortages in winter seasons and affecting international efforts to supply Afghanistan with Central Asian energy.

The dispute led the UN secretary-general to visit all five Central Asian states in 2010, during which he called on the countries to respect the UN's efforts to reduce regional tensions and promote dialogue on the issue.

Uzbekistan dropped its objections to Roghun in 2016, when President Shavkat Mirziyoev came to power in Tashkent promising rapprochement following decades of discord with fellow Central Asian states under strongman leader Islam Karimov.

'National' Pet Project

The Tajik government says the construction of Roghun on the Vakhsh River was first considered in the 1930s, although the assessment and planning stage didn't begin for another 30 years.

Construction work started in 1976, but the project was halted with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Any chances of restarting the project were dimmed in 1993, when a massive flood of the Vakhsh River damaged or destroyed much of what had been built.

In 2004, an agreement was reached with Russia’s RusAl company to complete construction, but Dushanbe canceled the deal in 2007, accusing RusAl of breaching the terms of the agreement.

But cash-strapped Tajikistan was determined to finish the project, and eventually announced new plans to do so at an estimated total cost of some $6 billion of its own funds.

Under enormous pressure to raise the funds, the government urged citizens, including students and pensioners, to buy Roghun shares in 2010.

Some $80 million were raised in the campaign amid reports that some people were forced to purchase the stocks against their will.

In 2016, Dushanbe awarded Italy’s Salini Impregilo a construction contract, and the company began work in October that year. The project grew to include dozens of sub-contracted companies from China, Germany, Iran, Russia, among others. Tajik authorities say that some 20,000 employees currently work at the site, and that it so far has spent some $2.2 billion of its own funds.

Engineers there told reporters this week that the height of the dam was sufficient to raise the reservoir to levels that would allow turbines to begin producing electricity. The next phase is expected to go online in the spring of 2019.

Once completed, Roghun HPP is expected to double Tajikistan’s electricity-production capacity -- to 3,600 MW, the equivalent of three nuclear power plants -- and put it a position to not only end crippling power shortages during winter months, but to generate cash by exporting excess electricity.

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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.