It has been an unusually cold winter in Central Asia, with temperatures hovering between –15C and –25C since late December. As a result of the protracted freezing temperatures, Central Asian states have been experiencing severe energy shortages. Among them, Tajikistan was perhaps the most vulnerable to the cold winter despite the fact that the country has shown some progress in developing its hydropower sector in the past few years.
Rarely have residents of Dushanbe, the Tajik capital, experienced the heavy snowfalls and sub-zero temperatures (Celsius), which have hung on for almost five weeks in a row. Because of the steeply increased demand for energy, Tajikistan has been experiencing rolling blackouts, with electricity shut down at times for days across all cities and provinces. The country’s main energy generation site, the Nurek hydroelectric plant, has been unable to meet even a fraction of local needs, due to its insufficient generating capacity and outdated facilities.
Tajikistan’s newly constructed Sangtuda-1 hydropower plant began generating electricity on January 20. The plant produces one million kWh each day, but this is merely one-twelfth of the needed volume in southern Tajikistan. Sangtuda-1 is located in southwestern Tajikistan and serves only the surrounding areas. The lack of communication infrastructure between southern and northern Tajikistan forces the country to transport its own electricity through the territory of Uzbekistan or to import it from Kyrgyzstan. This year Tajikistan has also agreed to import gas and electricity from Turkmenistan through Uzbekistan. Yet all three countries suffer from energy shortages in winters, therefore their export capacities are low. Uzbekistan has not been able to fulfill its contracted export volumes of natural gas to either Tajikistan or Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, due to increased consumption of energy on the domestic market.
The energy crisis is especially felt in Tajikistan’s rural areas, which often have poor connections to urban infrastructure. The lack of energy from any source has fueled a wave of internal migration. People have moved to live with relatives who have stockpiled coal. Local schools and hospitals remain unheated, causing most of them to shut down. Most factories and production sites have had to stop functioning. The population’s health is deteriorating, and there are numerous cases of newborns and homeless people dying from the cold throughout the region.
Even residents of Dushanbe have been forced to resort to outdated modes of heating, specifically by constructing small coal ovens to heat their homes. Dushanbe’s combined heat and power plant (CHPP) needs major repairs and is unable to provide heating and electricity to the entire city. The CHPP’s fuel oil reserves will last only for another one or two weeks. Throughout January the CHPP has only produced a few hours of electricity each day. City dwellers have been receiving electricity for three to six hours a day, while the power completely shut off at nights.
According to recommendations by international experts, the Tajik government should substantially reduce the Tajik Aluminum Company’s (TAlCo) consumption of electricity during the winter. On average, TAlCo consumes up to 40% of the domestically generated electricity in Tajikistan. A partial shutdown would certainly decrease aluminum production, but it would allow the authorities to redirect electricity to food producers and residential areas. The Tajik government could also encourage efficient use of local coal deposits that can easily substitute for gas and electricity in the winter months.
Financed mostly by Russia, Sangtuda-1 is the first large hydropower plant in Tajikistan and the Central Asian region. To date, only one of its hydropower units have been completed and construction of the remaining three is expected to conclude by the end of this year, bringing total production capacity to 670 MW. Sangtuda-1 has the potential to allow Tajikistan to have a self-sufficient energy market and to reduce its dependency on neighboring states. The Tajik government could also encourage the construction of smaller hydropower plants that would serve individual communities and villages. There are a number of potential projects to construct hydropower stations of different capacities on the Vakhsh, Syr-Darya, and Panj Rivers. All of these projects will require investment and, at the same time, increased domestic consumption prices.
At the official opening of Sangtuda-1, Tajik President Emomali Rahmon promised the population that this energy crisis is the last one they will have to experience. With the right management, Tajikistan will be able to escape future energy shortages during cold winters.
(Asia-plus, Fergana.ru, Nezavisimaya gazeta, January 15-24)