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Rogun Dam: The Waiting Game

Mar 06, 2013 Written by  Alexander Botting, Guest Contributor

Since the Rogun Dam project was first conceived in the 1970s, its progress has undergone a series of delays, denying Tajikistan the honor of building the tallest hydroelectric dam in the world and, more importantly, denying the Central Asia region a supply of cheap, sustainable energy.

One of a slew of Soviet-era hydroelectric power plants, construction on the project stopped in the early 1990s following the collapse of the Soviet Union. More recently, plans for Russia to provide funding for the project unraveled as the Tajik government opted to diversify the ownership of its hydroelectric industry and move away from the Russian investment.

Currently, construction at Rogun is on hold while a series of World Bank-funded studies are conducted into Rogun’s potential ecological, environmental and socio-political impact on the region.

World Bank Studies

The World Bank studies were commissioned at the behest of the Tajik government, who wanted an objective arbiter to assess the viability of the project. Having originally planned for a February 2012 completion, these studies are now tabled for completion this summer. Thus, the process has itself become a significant, if necessary, delay.

Early indications are that, while some changes may need to be made, the World Bank does not want to stand in the way of the project. If Rogun’s project managers continue to work with closely with them, they could possibly see the World Bank, the U.S. government, and a number of NATO countries come out publicly in support the project.

Rogun’s Potential Impact

If completed, Rogun would provide a sustainable source of cheap energy to a country and a region which are in desperate need. Owing partially to a series of Uzbek blockades, it has been estimated that 70 percent of the Tajik population experiences blackouts during the winter months.

Beyond the impact that this has on individuals, intermittent energy supplies make it difficult to develop domestic industries-a major reason why Tajikistan remains the poorest of the Central Asian states. Were Rogun to be completed, it would create an energy surplus in Tajikistan-ending its reliance on its neighbors for energy supplies and enabling the country to develop a robust private sector.

Of greater interest to NATO countries, Rogun would provide 2400 MW of energy to Afghanistan and Pakistan-more than the entire output of the Hoover Dam. As ISAF troops withdraw from the region in 2014 and the "nation-building" of operations begins, a cheap, sustainable source of energy with which to build and operate schools and hospitals is a mouth-watering prospect.

The Need for Diplomacy

Of the potential roadblocks that Rogun faces, the largest is political. Specifically, the Central Asian states must establish a water-sharing agreement which ensures that Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan are not unduly affected by hydroelectric projects in upstream Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.

Given Uzbekistan’s reliance on its water-intensive agricultural sector, this has not been easy. Uzbekistan utilizes a large proportion of the region’s water, and hydroelectric projects could temporarily slow the flow of water downstream, creating a tangible cost to their agricultural sector. For this reason, they strongly oppose such installations, even threatening military action over Rogun.

We only need to look back 25 years, however, to see that a cooperative solution is possible. Under the Soviet system, Uzbekistan used to provide Tajikistan with cheap supplies of gas in return for Tajikistan raising the barriers at its hydropower stations. This provided Tajikistan with sufficient energy, while leaving Uzbekistan free to continue its water-intensive agricultural production.

Such an agreement could be achieved again. In order for this to happen, however, Uzbekistan must reverse its unwillingness to engage in diplomacy. Their concerns should be taken into account, but it would be wrong for to allow threats of violence to derail a project which could have such a positive effect on Central Asia.

More importantly, influential actors such as Russia, China, and the United States must actively pressure Uzbekistan to negotiate. Allowing them to act as a ‘spoiler’ will not only raise tensions among the Central Asian states, it will ultimately slow the economic development of the region.

An Opportunity

A UN Resolution was passed last year making 2013 the International Year of Water Cooperation. Consequently, they will host forums in March (in New York) and August (in Dushanbe) which will bring together public and private sector representatives to discuss how to structure a water-sharing agreement in Central Asia. The international community must harness this opportunity to find a lasting solution and resist the urge to ‘kick the can down the road’.

The Rogun Dam’s delay is a symptom of the region’s stuggle to establish a comprehensive water-sharing agreement. Only by developing such projects, however, can Central Asia begin to build a better future for its people.

Alexander Botting works for a Washington, D.C.-based international government affairs firm, where he provides political and business consultancy services to clients from the Europe and Eurasia regions. Mr. Botting received his B.A. in Politics and International Studies from the University of Warwick, specializing in Political Communication, U.S. Politics, and International Security; and is studying for a Master’s in Political Management at George Washington University, where he has been awarded an Academic Fellowship.

Photo: Lee Hughes (cc).

Tagged under Soviet Union    sustainable    energy    hydroelectric dam    Tajikistan    Russia    Rogun Dam    World Bank    Uzbek    Uzbekistan    Kazakhstan    Kyrgyzstan    Central Asia    agricultural    China    International Year of Water Cooperation    UN   
Last modified on Tuesday, 09 July 2013 04:36

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