An unusually cold winter has gripped Central Asia, causing severe energy shortages in all countries for almost two months. Throughout the region the lack of electricity and gas has revealed the urgent need to develop inter-state energy cooperation that would allow a coordinated response to crisis situations.
Since gaining independence in 1991 the states of Central Asia have failed to design long-term, mutually beneficial cooperation in the energy sector. Agreements between upstream Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan and downstream Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are set on a yearly basis, often amid conspiracy theories and nationalist slogans. For over 17 years downstream countries have overused water in the summer, while in winter upstream dams suffer from critically low water levels.
This winter’s lack of heating in houses, frequent blackouts, rising food prices, and the visible deterioration of public health in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan has unleashed social tensions across these countries.
Due to increased energy usage, Uzbekistan has been experiencing shortages of natural gas and therefore had to heavily rely on electricity. Uzbek citizens have staged a number of small, ad hoc protests in various cities throughout the country, criticizing the government for selling too much gas abroad and failing to consider local needs. At least one regional analyst thinks the Uzbek government tolerates these protests because they are motivated by economic, not political, reasons. These sporadic protests do not have ideological leaders and are likely to fade as the weather warms up.
However, according to some analysts, Uzbek President Islam Karimov’s recent local government reshuffles are connected to local leaders’ inability to counter rising popular discontent over the lack of heat for their houses. Among the most significant changes were the February 21 replacement of Ferghana Hokim Adiljon Allayarov by Prime Minister Shavkat Mirzieyev. The former prime minister will now be responsible for the region where mass anti-governmental protests took place in May 2005. Karimov appointed 49-year old Rustam Azimov as his new prime minister.
Uzbekistan’s current energy shortages could have been prevented last summer, when the Kyrgyz and Uzbek governments became aware of the low water level in the Toktogul dam, which is the key for producing hydropower for both countries. However, neither country took appropriate actions to secure a balanced usage of water. Instead, both states increased prices for their energy exports, with Uzbekistan drastically increasing prices for natural gas and Kyrgyzstan for electricity.
Kyrgyzstan’s plans to construct the Kambarata-1 and 2 hydropower stations are complicated by the country’s inability to predict energy export needs by Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in the long-term for market prices. Having strained relations with Uzbekistan, Tajikistan has already reoriented its markets toward Iran, Afghanistan, and China.
Within Central Asia, Tajikistan has suffered the most from the sub-zero temperatures, which often reached –25 degrees Celsius. Suffering from a lack of energy resources for weeks, Dushanbe faced a humanitarian crisis that will have long-term economic and social implications (see EDM, January 24). Earlier this month Tajik President Emomali Rakhmon appealed to the international community and neighboring states for urgent humanitarian aid.
Since late December 2007 Tajikistan has lost over $250 million in production. Over 230 newborns and a dozen postpartum women died in the past month because of freezing hospital temperatures. Over 150 industrial sites and public offices have stopped functioning throughout Tajikistan, leaving tens of thousands of employees without wages. Tajik Aluminum Company (TAlCo), Tajikistan’s largest industrial site, has been forced to decrease its production levels by 20% due to the cut in electricity supplies. TAlCo usually consumes 40% of the country’s total electricity output.
Tajikistan’s energy also crisis has long-term implications. Not only have heating infrastructure and water pipelines collapsed because of freezing temperatures, but also hundreds of thousands of hectares of harvest fields and gardens have been destroyed. Tajikistan will encounter rampant inflation for food and energy products in the coming months. More people will be forced to live below poverty line.
In January Tajikistan pleaded for Kyrgyzstan to increase electricity exports. However, the Kyrgyz government was not able to meet the request due to its own increased consumption levels. High consumption rates in Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan, countries that traditionally export electricity to Tajikistan, have created shortages even on their own domestic markets.
Tajikistan’s current predicament shows that the country is not able to solve its energy issues alone, while also exposing neighboring states’ vulnerability to energy shortages.
(Azia-Plus, CA-News, Regnum, UzMetronom.com, January 31-February 21)