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Is U.S. Against Central Asian Hydropower Plants?

Tajikistan's Kairakkum hydropower station, one of many the country hopes will lead to energy independence and even exports, while Uzbekistan fears for its own water supply.
Tajikistan's Kairakkum hydropower station, one of many the country hopes will lead to energy independence and even exports, while Uzbekistan fears for its own water supply.
Uzbekistan has welcomed a U.S. law that, according to Uzbekistan's media at least, supports Tashkent's opposition to the construction of large hydropower projects (HPP) by its Central Asian neighbors.

As reported by Uzbek media, this law would severely curtail the ability of international financial organizations to provide funding for building large HPPs, for example, the kind being planned in neighboring Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

There are key details being omitted in these Uzbek claims and those will be mentioned further down. For now, it's important to understand what the people in eastern Central Asia are hearing and believe.

Speaking with journalists in Tashkent on January 30 about the U.S. law, the director of Uzbekistan's Gidroproyekt Institute, Sergei Zhigarev, said the law "directly obliges the U.S. representatives in the boards of directors of international financial institutions to oppose the approval of any loans or document that would support projects on the construction of large dams and hydroenergy facilities."

He noted the United States was the "biggest shareholder and donor" of many major international financial institutions. Zhigarev listed "the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the International Development Association, the Asian Development Bank, [and] the Asian Development Fund" as being among the organizations where U.S. officials would now be expected to object to funding for large HPP projects. Those comments were on the front page of newspapers in Uzbekistan, "Pravda vostoka" for one.

Not surprisingly, some people in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are concerned. The governments in those two countries have been telling their people for years that large HPPs are the way to energy independence and an end to heating and electricity shortages. Both countries are currently planning to build large HPPs. And considering how brutal winter has been in Central Asia recently, Zhigarev's comments come at a very bad time.

The subject came up in Dushanbe on February 11, when Tajik journalists asked visiting World Bank Vice President for Europe and Central Asia Laura Tuck about the U.S. law. Tuck was in Tajikistan to announce the World Bank's feasibility study on the Roghun HPP -- a project Uzbekistan opposes -- would be completed by the middle of this year. Tuck said she knew about the law but declined to comment.*

Tuck might have chosen to refrain discussing the issue because, according to an article in "The Washington Post" on January 24, the new U.S. law is aimed at the World Bank and seeks to tighten oversight of the bank's lending practices. According to the article, the bill came partially in response to past bank-funded HPP projects in Guatemala, where hundreds of villagers were killed, and Ethiopia, where thousands were forcibly resettled. Central Asia doesn't seem to be specifically mentioned.

Those are some of the details Uzbek media has left out.

No U.S. official has yet provided any statement on what the new law means for hydropower in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. But "The Washington Post" article notes, "The U.S. vote alone would not be enough to block hydroelectric and other projects from moving forward."

And there are some good reasons the new U.S. law will have little, if any effect on construction of the Roghun HPP in Tajikistan, or the Kambar-Ata-1 HPP in Kyrgyzstan. The best reason is that the money for building the Kyrgyz and Tajik HPPs is not coming from any of the international financial institutions where the U.S. has a presence.

Russia abandoned the Roghun project due to disagreements over the size of the HPP (planned to be the tallest in the world) and ownership shares. The Tajik government has since been going it alone and advertising Roghun as a patriotic project, encouraging, some would say forcing, citizens to donate from their own pockets.

The World Bank is only doing an assessment of the project, exactly the sort of assessment the Uzbek government has been demanding.

And Russian companies are building Kambar-Ata in Kyrgyzstan. Tashkent is also demanding an independent assessment of that project.

Kyrgyzstan's Energy Ministry pointed out in February 2012 that such an assessment was already conducted in the 1980s "by the Tashkent department of project-investigation and scientific-research institute 'Gidroproyekt.'" The 1978 feasibility study on Roghun was also conducted by Gidroproyekt.

Another reason the Kyrgyz and Tajik HPPs are unlikely to affected by the U.S. law is the Central Asia-South Asia project, or CASA-1000.

CASA-1000 aims to provide Afghanistan and Pakistan with 1,300 megawatts of electricity annually (1,000 for Pakistan and 300 for Afghanistan). The U.S. government and international organizations such as the World Bank support the project. Washington pledged $15 million toward the project in December 2013. The World Bank and Islamic Development Bank have promised up to $1 billion. The latest round of negotiations on the project started in Washington on February 11.

CASA-1000 is dependent on hydroelectricity from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. While it is true the plan is based on HPPs that already exist, it is also true that those HPPs are currently not able to supply all the electricity needed in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

So for CASA-1000 to work, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan need to build Kambar-Ata and Roghun. Washington would have a difficult time convincing Bishkek or Dushanbe to forego construction of these large HPPs and at the same time divert power badly needed at home to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Journalist Hillary Kramer has argued for Roghun's construction in articles in "Forbes" magazine. Kramer wrote in March 2013 that the extra electricity from Roghun would provide "cheap, secure, and sustainable energy to Tajikistan, and its neighbors, including the northern regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan" and have a beneficial effect on security in the region.

*The World Bank representative in Tajikistan, Abdullo Ashurov, sent RFE/RL's Tajik Service a message saying the World Bank was "aware of the new provision in the United States' law regarding large hydroelectric dams" but "given that these are sovereign decisions, the World Bank does not comment or form an opinion on these instructions."

RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service contacted Energy and Industry Minister Osmonbek Artykbaev, who said he did not know about the U.S. law and that the World Bank had not said anything to Kyrgyz officials about the U.S. law or its possible impact on the country's HPP projects. Artykbaev said plans for Kambar-Ata and the Upper Naryn cascade HPPs are going ahead.

Sojida Djakhfarova and Salimjon Aioubov of RFE/RL's Tajik Service and Gulaiym Ashakeeva of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service contributed to this article

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 the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.​

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


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