Tajikistan’s president, Emomali Rakhmon, likes things big. He has built the world’s tallest flagpole. Last year he opened the region’s largest library (with few books in it so far). But one gigantic project is proving contentious with the neighbours: building the world’s tallest hydroelectric dam.
Islam Karimov, the strongman who rules downstream Uzbekistan, says the proposed 335-metre Rogun dam, on a tributary of the Amu Darya, will give Tajikistan unfair control over water resources and endanger millions in the event of an earthquake. On September 7th, he said such projects could lead to “not just serious confrontation, but even wars”. Mr Karimov wasn’t talking only about Tajikistan. Upstream from Uzbekistan on a tributary of the region’s other major river, the Syr Darya, Kyrgyzstan is seeking investment for a project of its own, called Kambarata. The two proposed dams (Rogun at 3.6 gigawatts and Kambarata at 1.9) would theoretically end their respective countries’ frequent power shortages and provide badly needed export earnings.
Both were conceived in the twilight of the communist era and stalled when subsidies from Moscow evaporated at independence. Soviet leaders envisioned managing the region’s water flows, energy trades and competing interests, and their Russian successors still maintain an interest. During a visit to Bishkek on September 20th, Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, promised help with Kambarata in exchange for, among other things, an extension of military-basing rights in Kyrgyzstan. Tajikistan has sought Russian help for Rogun, too. Mr Putin promised $2 billion for the dam in 2004. But that deal fell apart three years later, when the two countries could not agree about the dam’s height.
Spurring on both projects is Uzbekistan’s bad behaviour, egregious even in a tetchy region. Unlike Uzbekistan, neither Tajikistan nor Kyrgyzstan, the two poorest former Soviet republics, has reliable access to oil or gas. Uzbekistan’s Mr Karimov has a habit of changing gas prices and cutting deliveries during the coldest months. He has prevented electricity supplies to his indigent neighbours from transiting his country’s Soviet-era grid. Uzbekistan has also unilaterally closed most border checkpoints with both upstream countries, set mines along parts of the boundary with Tajikistan, and often holds up commercial traffic. When a rail bridge in southern Uzbekistan mysteriously exploded last autumn, depriving southern Tajikistan of its rail connections, few believed Uzbek claims of a terrorist attack. Indeed, rather than fix the track, the Uzbeks dismantled it. Tajikistan calls the actions a blockade.
Though it seems unlikely Mr Karimov will drive his tanks over the border just yet, shoot-outs on the disputed borders are not uncommon. All of this worries NATO officials. All three countries help supply the war in Afghanistan and will be crucial for NATO’s withdrawal.
Excerpt, Water wars in Central Asia: Dammed if they do, Economist, Sept. 29, 2012, at 44
One the international agreements between states on water and electricity exchanges, see Elli Louka International Environmental Law