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    Central Asia
     Jan 4, 2012


The Rogun juggernaut
By Fozil Mashrab

TASHKENT - Although Tajikistan's Rogun dam and hydro-power project has not yet been cleared by the World Bank-sponsored technical and environmental assessments, Tajikistan, seemingly with the bank's tacit approval, is continuing to spend hundreds of millions of dollars every year for its construction and is also trying to link the construction of this gigantic and controversial dam to the international efforts to stabilize Afghanistan.

The Tajikistan government has agreed in the past to halt all construction works at the controversial Rogun dam except for

 
what officials mysteriously call "repair works" until the assessments are completed in return for possible World Bank financial assistance in the event the assessment clears the project in terms of technical and environmental security.

However, Tajikistan's down-stream neighbor Uzbekistan, which has been locked in a bitter dispute with Tajikistan over the dam, claims that Tajikistan is not honoring its pledge made to the World Bank by continuing to allocate funds for the so-called "repair works".

Tajikistan allocates more than US$200 million annually for the dam, apparently far exceeding the simple maintenance costs of undertaking "repair work". Uzbekistan further maintains that the World Bank has not put in place stringent oversight mechanisms that would ensure the Tajik government's full and verifiable compliance to its pledge made to the bank.

Meanwhile, Tajikistan's tireless attempts to promote the CASA1000 trans-regional electricity transmission line project to export Tajik electricity to Pakistan via Afghanistan, which the Tajik government links to the Rogun dam, has further increased Uzbekistan's suspicion that all along Tajikistan has not been genuinely committed to the World Bank's technical and environmental assessments and only agreed to the bank's proposal on a calculated gamble that these might eventually come up with surprise positive findings for the dam while it can easily dismiss any negative outcome.

This observation does indeed seem to be the case given that Tajik officials starting from President Emomali Rahmon down to Tajik members of parliament and rank and file civil servants are regularly put on record vowing to complete the Rogun dam at any cost and regardless of what may come to pass.

Recently, while attending two international conferences dedicated to normalizing Afghanistan, which took place in Istanbul and Bonn in early November and December in an effort to win the international community's support for his government's controversial plan to construct what would be the world's tallest dam, Tajikistan's Foreign Minister Hamrokhon Zarifi claimed that the CASA1000 project would help to "fundamentally reverse" the existing situation in Afghanistan.

According to Zarifi, CASA1000 would help Afghanistan to wean its farmers from cultivating opium to cultivating what he called "peaceful" crops by supplying water to Afghanistan and helping it to recover its irrigation system.

Though the foreign minister did not openly mention Rogun dam in his address to the Bonn II Conference participants, it was clear to many Central Asia observers that CASA1000 for Tajikistan means Rogun dam, as it has been the only game in town in Dushanbe for the past decade or so - and more importantly, though the World Bank prefers not to mention it, the CASA1000 project would not be economically viable without the dam's construction.

Any tourist visiting this mountainous Central Asian country's capital and other large cities will hardly fail to notice that Rogun has already become an idee fixe for the Tajik government and its leadership. Billboards with Rahmon at the Rogun construction site with patriotic slogans such as "Rogun - a matter of life and death" or "Rogun - the light at the end of the dark tunnel" decorate all main streets in Tajikistan.

In order to prove its resolve and to demonstrate to Uzbekistan that it will not swerve from its chosen path, the Tajik government has already taken the decisive step of forcefully selling "golden Rogun shares" to its population in order to raise US$1.2 billion, which is necessary to complete the first section of the dam.

If the World Bank/International Monetary Fund had not interfered, the government would have continued selling Rogun shares to its impoverished population to the extent that most of its people would have to choose between buying Rogun shares and buying basic food items to survive.

Uzbekistan is not letting up in its opposition to the Rogun dam. Basically, the Uzbek government and its scientists argue against the project by claiming:
  • It is a relic of the former Soviet Union, whose water-related policies in Central Asia have already led to the near complete disappearance of the Aral Sea - once one of the world's biggest fresh-water inland lakes. Construction of the dam might further endanger the already fragile environmental balance in the region;
  • The dam will limit the flow of water in the Amudarya River as it will be diverted to the Rogun dam reservoir. According to most conservative estimates, Tajikistan will have to divert substantial amounts of river water for at least eight to 10 years in order to fill the reservoir. They say that, contrary to Tajik claims, dams to be built in Tajikistan are not really meant to supply water to neighbors but to divert and hoard water to generate electricity;
  • The Uzbek government is also afraid that, if completed, the Rogun dam will make it possible for the Tajik government to use the water issue for powerful negotiating leverage in any future dispute with Uzbekistan;
  • That a completed dam would be a disaster in waiting of "Biblical proportions". The Rogun dam, designed to be at least a record 336 meters tall, is modelled on the Soviet-era Sajano-Shushenskaya dam in Siberia, which collapsed in 2009. If anything similar goes wrong for this "feat of Tajik-Soviet engineering", or if a strong earthquake hits Tajikistan (the whole Central Asian region is on a permanently active seismic zone) then a "monster tsunami" could be unleashed on adjacent territories including heavily populated territories of Uzbekistan, Afghanistan and Turkmenistan;
  • Climatic changes attributed to global warming are already being acutely felt in Central Asia, with unusually extreme hot summers and shortages of water during harvesting seasons taking their toll on agriculture in downstream countries such as Uzbekistan and also in Tajikistan this year. Thousands of hectares of wheat and other crops were allowed to perish because of a shortage of water for irrigation. Agriculture is a crucial sector for all Central Asian countries, whether involving cotton or vegetables, fruits and meat in demand by growing populations.

    Uzbek and international experts say Tajikistan should build small- and medium-sized hydroelectric power stations (provided they meet technical and environmental safety safeguards) to harness the energy potential of the rivers that cross its territory.

    That would benefit it economically, helping it fully meet its energy needs throughout the year while still allowing it to become a net exporter of electricity to the likes of Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan - for which last there is even no need to construct costly transmission lines similar to CASA1000 since energy grids linking Uzbekistan to Tajikistan and its other Central Asian neighbors are already in place.

    The growth in population and demand for food items suggest Uzbekistan's claims are more than self-serving fear-mongering. Its population will reach 35 million people by 2020 from the present 29 million - a trend seen in all other Central Asian countries, whose combined population barely equals that of Uzbekistan.

    None of the Central Asian countries can boast complete or near-complete self-sufficiency in food, while Tajikistan is the region's biggest importer per capita of food items as its government pays far less attention to its heavily indebted farmers than to its epic struggle to complete the Rogun dam.

    The government uses administrative measures such as artificial and largely ineffective price caps on various food items rather than stimulating and creating favorable conditions for its farmers to improve their output.

    Tajik forecasts of the potential miraculous benefits of the country's dams on Afghanistan are not accepted by George Gavrilis, among others, who in a recent Foreign Affairs analysis of regional solutions to the war in Afghanistan said: "Tajikistan's ability to collect lucrative international development aid is greatly owed to its proximity to dysfunctional Afghanistan. Tajik officials regularly present international donors with long list of 'win-win' cross-border development projects that, they insist, must be built on their side of the border. This means that Afghanistan accrues no benefit until much later, if at all."

    Linking CASA1000 to international efforts to bring peace and stability to Afghanistan will imperil rather than facilitate efforts to normalize the country by complicating regional disputes and Kabul into them.

    With the Tajik government's present interpretation of CASA1000 project linked to Rogun, any support by Pakistan, Afghanistan, Russia or the US for the transmission line project will by default also be extended to Rogun, only fueling the already bitter dispute over the dam - it is no coincidence that Uzbekistan declined to send a high-level delegation to attend the latest Istanbul and Bonn II conferences on Afghanistan and did not subscribe to the joint statements of these two conferences.

    Normalization of life in Afghanistan, including persuading Afghan farmers to switch to "peaceful" crops, requires the resolution of far more complex issues and processes than the construction of Rogun or any other dam in Tajikistan.

    That raises the question why the World Bank continues to pretend not to notice the Tajik government's shenanigans over so-called "repair works" while pledging $1 billion for the erection of electricity transmission lines as part of the CASA1000 project with the full knowledge that it would not be economically viable without the Rogun hydro-power project.

    Last month, the World Bank announced plans to provide around $1 billion to fund the CASA1000 power lines project, which will also carry elecricity from Kyrgyzstan to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Alexander Kremer, who heads the World Bank office in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek, told reporters $200 million would be invested in Kyrgyzstan and $250 million in neighboring Tajikistan, while Afghanistan would need around $350 million in loans and Pakistan another $200 million, the Kyrgyzstan Newswire reported on December 19.

    Discrepancies in World Bank pronouncements and actions over the projects will not only undermine the credibility of the technical and environmental assessments on the Rogun dam but also erode the bank's standing as a self-appointed but well-meaning "neutral mediator" between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

    Fozil Mashrab is a pseudonym used by an independent analyst based in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.

    (Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)
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