A Rogue Water Project

by |March 26, 2010

Even today, many Central Asian nations rely on infrastructure that was clumsily implemented by the Soviet Union in the 1970s, and Tajikistan is no exception.  In fact, she is the poorest country in Central Asia and has long been quarrelling with Uzbekistan and even Afghanistan over resources and related policies.  One such controversial project involves a large water dam, named Rogun that was first introduced by the Soviet Union, and later abandoned due to internal strife and the eventual disintegration of the communist bloc itself.  In the last few years, the Tajik government has revived efforts towards creating Rogun, despite the various pitfalls it faces considering the fact that it was planned and initiated using outdated Soviet technology, over four decades ago.

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The river Vakhsh

This project, however, may in fact be crucial to pulling Tajikistan out of the perpetual economic crisis it currently endures.  Facing constant blackouts, the Tajik government has expressed frustration over its old energy grid-lock system that is now just another failing soviet remnant.  Since Uzbekistan in 2009 pulled herself out of this system, Tajikistan has faced the brunt of being left behind.  In other words, without the connection to Uzbek energy resources, Tajikistan simply cannot sustain herself.  Despite its lack of energy resources, Tajikistan has flowing glaciers into its main river Vaksh from which power could be harnessed using Rogun.  If Rogun is built, it will be over 335m (1,100ft) in height, emerging as the tallest dam in the world, and more importantly, as a means towards Tajik self-sustainability, at least in the context of energy.

Yet apart from the obvious drawbacks to blowing full-steam ahead with this project, Rogun is also extremely expensive; in fact it is estimated to cost $4bn – that’s four times the annual state budget.  The Tajik government is urging, and almost downright forcing, every citizen to buy shares worth $700 to make this plan a reality.  Small businesses and local residents are facing various colorful obstacles in their daily lives if they have not purchased shares, from being refused medical help to being unable to enter a contractual agreement.  Many critics are pointing to the fact that with a population where 60% of the people live below the poverty line, Rogun could run the nation into a state of further economic exacerbation.

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The Rogun site

In response to the government’s announcement that Rogun will start providing electricity by 2012, Uzbekistan has started protesting even more vociferously.  Some even say that the recent freight traffic that has blocked Tajik transportation from crossing its borders to Afghanistan is related to the Rogun conundrum.  One of Tajikistan’s main sources of capital derives from its non-war-related shipments to Afghanistan’s military enforcements.  These squabbles aside, Tajikistan has received a glimmer of hope from the World Bank, which recently agreed to underwrite an environmental feasibility study for the hydropower project.  If this report clears Rogun, then the possibility of funding from the World Bank surfaces as well, in which case, Tajikistan could become Central Asia’s main electricity exporter.

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