Last month (July 2014), a World Bank assessment explicitly approved the technical, economic and social aspects of the construction of the planned Rogun hydropower plant (Rogun HPP). The conclusions vindicate Tajikistan, which has hoped to build this hydroelectric dam for years. Uzbekistan, on the other hand, long an opponent of the Rogun HPP, expressed strong dissatisfaction, leaving the dispute among these two countries unresolved. Following the World Bank report, Russia, which disapproved of the project in 2009, this time expressed its support, bringing itself back into the picture while further complicating the regional conflict over water use (World Bank, July 14–18).
Four years after the World Bank agreed to perform the studies into the construction of the Rogun HPP by Tajikistan, it held its fifth and final meeting among the six neighboring countries that share Central Asia’s largest rivers and water sources: Tajikistan and the Kyrgyz Republic (the upstream countries looking to build HPPs on the rivers) along with Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan (the downstream states that rely on the rivers for agricultural irrigation). The meeting took place on July 14–18, in Almaty, Kazakhstan, and its purpose was to review and collect final comments before the World Bank’s reports on the Rogun dam are finalized and released in August of this year. The two studies are a Techno-Economic Assessment Study and an Environmental and Social Impact Assessment. The first report concludes that: 1) the possible negative impact of salt wedge (salt formations in the soil) can be mitigated; 2) previous construction and repair work done to the dam was suitable; 3) and subject to specific design modifications, all three options for the dam’s ultimate height—335, 300 or 265 meters (approximately 1,100, 984 and 869 feet, respectively)—can be built and operated safely. The latter report concludes that the Rogun HPP is technically and economically feasible as long as Tajikistan ensures the restoration of the resettled people’s livelihoods, as well as maintains the current seasonal pattern of flows to downstream countries by converting the Nurek reservoir into a run-of-river HPP, using the Rogun dam to regulate the cascade and downstream water flows (World Bank, July 14–18).
In a press-release issued by the World Bank on July 18, Anna Bjerde, the World Bank’s Director for Strategy and Operations in Europe and Central Asia, who chaired the Rogun HPP discussions in Almaty, said that the five-day meeting was “the culmination of four years of state-of-the-art, independent analysis by international experts.” She added, “Throughout this process the World Bank has been committed to ensuring that the studies meet the highest standards for technical quality, transparency, and consultation” (World Bank, July 18).
Uzbekistan’s Deputy Prime Minister Rustam Azimov rebuked Bjerde’s words of approval, however. Azimov and his colleagues from the other regional countries met separately on July 18 to discuss the results of the World Bank studies. Azimov did not try to be diplomatic about the results of the reports, caustically calling elements of the studies “complete nonsense, unprofessional, shallow, unacceptable, and miscalculated.” He concluded that the reports do not meet internationally recognized standards of independent, impartial, objective or transparent project appraisal. He also warned that the reports would lead to poor decisions, resulting in disastrous consequences for not only Uzbekistan, but for the rest of Central Asia. He added that the comments Uzbekistan has been providing since the assessment studies’ commencement have fallen on deaf ears and none of them made it into the final draft report (mfa.uz, July 18). As of this writing, Tajikistan had not issued any official reaction to Azimov’s statement.
In the run up to the release of the reports by the World Bank, the representative of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Relation Aleksandr Lukashevich, at a June 26 press conference, expressed Moscow’s support for the Rogun HPP and other large infrastructure projects in the region (RIA Novosti, June 26). This caused some bewilderment from Dushanbe—last time Tajikistan heard anything related to Rogun from Russia was in 2009, from then-president Dmitry Medvedev, who said that dam construction in the region should take into consideration the interests of all neighbors (BBC-Russia Service, February 24, 2009). Following Lukashevich’s June 26 statement, two Tajik newspapers speculated that Russia was playing the Rogun card to remind Uzbekistan, relations with which had cooled recently, that Moscow can change the power balance in the region if it wishes. No actual Russian financial support is likely follow, however, added the sources (Millat, Nigoh, July 2). The fact that Russia is trying to lure Tajikistan into its Customs Union/Eurasian Economic Union could also be a factor in Moscow siding with Dushanbe.
Coincidently, a feasibility study for yet another large-scale Central Asian hydro-project—this one in Kyrgyzstan, which Uzbekistan opposes as well—has recently been approved. The feasibility study estimates the 1,860-Megawatt Kambarata-1 project will cost $3 billion dollars to build. Kyrgyzstan sent the report to Russia, the funder of the project (Vecherniy Bishkek, July 19).
The World Bank study had de facto put construction of the Rogun HPP on hold for the past 3–4 years. Now that this and the Kambarata-1 assessments are finished and only financial constraints are left to stand in the way, will Central Asia’s upstream countries move forward with their HPP plans and, more importantly, will the players outside the region meddle? The World Bank studies, originally conceived as a means to resolve the region’s thorny water security issues, now appear to be setting the scene for further disputes and graver political confrontations among the countries.