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Dammed or Damned: Tajikistan and Uzbekistan Wrestle Over Water-Energy Nexus

By Shavkat Kasymov

The rivalry between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan is like any other, borne out of similarity, proximity, and scarcity. But the growing contention between the two countries hasn’t been around forever. It is a product of the former Soviet Republic’s distribution of political power. In a region where identity was long dictated by lifestyle, straddling ethnic and linguistic barriers, sudden political categorization based on Soviet terms formed the foundation for simmering animosity. Over the last 15 years, a string of environmental and political stresses have only aggravated relations. But there are strategic steps each country could take to rebuild the relationship based on the principles of mutual investment and benefit.

Underlying the present state of Uzbek-Tajik relations are a few key shifts: sporadic cuts to Tajikistan’s access to natural gas by Uzbekistan (Tajikistan consumes an average of 39,000 barrels a day, mostly from Uzbekistan), the introduction of a visa regime program, the introduction of minefields along the shared border, and disputes surrounding the origins and history of Tajik and Uzbek national identitites. A main point of contention is a controversial hydroelectric project, the Rogun Dam, in the works since the 1960s. The project has been advertised by Tajik leaders as a path to energy and economic independence, but Uzbeks claim it will stop their share of the flow of the Vakhsh River, a resource that is crucial to its cotton monocrop economy. Despite this bleak political backdrop, the plant, which the Tajik leadership is poised to complete, actually represents an opportunity to unite. It offers the Uzbek leader, Islam Karimov, an opportunity to transform the current state of bilateral relations into a more constructive alliance based on reciprocal understanding and support. From Tajikistan’s main regional foe, Uzbekistan could transform into its foremost economic partner. The current state of affairs between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan is in need of cardinal reshaping and transformation into a more constructive dialogue. The Rogun project is a unique opportunity to bring to fruition the wishful thinking that is prevalent in both countries about friendship and communal trust between neighboring nations.

Soviet engineers conceived the Rogun Hydroelectric Power Plant at the Central Asian branch of the design bureau Hydroprojekt located in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. Since it was Uzbek engineers who originally designed the plant, Tajikistan’s solo involvement in the construction process raises questions about the prospect of success of the project and the quality of the dam, which is projected to be the tallest in the world at 335 meters and located in a highly seismic zone. These logistical doubts linger atop the political implications of adversely affecting the Uzbek economy. Taken together, the economic, political, and environmental implications for this type of unilateral undertaking have the potential to be appalling in both countries, provoking a cycle of interstate hostility that could escalate into full-scale military conflict. Uzbekistan’s participation is critical not only because of the country’s expertise in designing and constructing the hydroelectric facilities but also because the construction of the Rogun Plant makes Uzbekistan vulnerable. Located downstream, the dam's collapse as a result of an earthquake or shoddy construction would be devestating.

The Rogun Dam is being built on the Vakhsh river upstream to a Nurek power plant, currently the biggest hydroelectric facility in Tajikistan. The government has secured funding for Nurek’s construction through a nationwide compulsory IPO, which has generated popular criticism of the project. Similarly, given Tajikistan’s shortage of funding, more questions have arisen about the likelihood of a timely completion of the project that has the potential to span decades. However, if Uzbekistan finds a way to invest in the construction of the Rogun project, either through sponsorship, contribution of knowhow, or technical support, it could ensure its share of control over the power plant and thus the required amount of annual water flow downstream. It would also create an additional source of revenue for both Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Given Uzbekistan’s vast pool of scientists and engineers in the field of construction of hydro-energy generation facilities, it should become a key player in the operations of the power plant. Though difficult to contemplate at the moment, Uzbekistan’s participation in the project could provide the leaders with the incentives to resolve the longstanding political animosity between the two nations. The enormous amount of electricity produced by the power plant could be exported to other Central and South Asian countries, which would become an additional source of income for the budgets of both countries and jobs for the local populations.

Experience suggests that the construction of a major hydroelectric power plant requires the investments and efforts of two or more countries’ tributaries of the river. Uzbekistan and other countries in the region would benefit greatly from the project, as it would generate revenue and jobs for the region’s impoverished people. Rather than look at the project as a reason for conflict, the leaders of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan should arrange terms on each country’s role in the construction process and determine the subsequent share of control over the power plant. With Russia as a stakeholder and arbiter, this would be a feasible development project for Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and for the countries of the entire region, including Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Russia, India, China, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan. If these countries could commit themselves to a construction process, they could become the direct beneficiaries of one of the most promising development projects of the region. Their participation would give them a share of control over the distribution of energy and secure profits from exports of electricity for many years to come. Once the construction of the power plant is complete, both Uzbekistan and Tajikistan could export power to these countries and receive revenues to create more jobs, raise salaries, and boost the welfare programs.  

As a windfall, the Vakhsh water problem would be at least partially resolved. From the onset, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan would have to agree on the amount of annual water flow needed for Uzbekistan’s irrigation needs. It is essential that the interests of both upstream and downstream countries are accounted for in such a way that Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, as the main participants of the project, could devise a long-term agreement on the water distribution quotas in the winter and summer seasons. The required commitment by state leaders for this to happen, to negotiate and follow the terms of bilateral and multilateral agreements, would exemplify their genuine concern about the prosperity of their populations.

This proposal is not far-flung; the strategy has been used before. The completion of the Nurek power plant in 1980 transformed Tajikistan from an agricultural appendage of the Soviet Union to an industrialized republic. With the breakup of the Soviet Union, Tajikistan had received full control over the Nurek power plant which currently generates energy to cover over 90 percent of the nationwide demand. The bulk of it is consumed by the Tadaz aluminum plant, a major source of revenues for the state budget. As a result of the Nurek Power Plant, the metallurgy and production sectors in the republic experienced a rapid growth for several decades. Moreover, no difficulties were encountered with regard to the supply of water flow downstream in the Fergana valley of Uzbekistan during that time with roughly the equivalent set of circumstances that a Rogun Plant presents. With Nurek, the stakeholders came to an agreement about the annual water flow quotas needed for Uzbekistan’s irrigation needs and Tajikistan’s energy demands. This give and take is exactly how Tajiks and Uzbeks negotiated their conflict of interest before the Soviet Union broke up, but today each party pursues its interest at the expense of the other’s needs, generating unnecessary—and dangerous—political contention.

The Rogun Power Plant project represents an opportunity for Uzbekistan to start a new chapter in the history of bilateral relations between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. However, it is a two-way street–equally important for the project to succeed is the consent of Tajikistan to Uzbekistan’s participation in the project. Key to the success of the project are concessions by country leaders, and this all hinges on the goodwill of the presidents of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, Islam Karimov and Emomali Rahmon. A plant of this magnitude will not be easy to construct or operate. But by addressing the rising demand for electricity and bringing order to a chaotic water distribution system, it could be crucial to the welfare of both Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, producing benefits that will ripple for generations to come.

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Shavkat Kasymov is a Moscow-based analyst, researcher, and writer.

[Photo courtesty of Sashapo.]

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