Defining the Geopolitics of a Thirsty WorldSM
Central Asia’s Valuable Hydropower Potential

Via Forbes, a report on Central Asia’s hydropower potential and politics:

Anyone who saw the recent social media backlash against Nestle knows that water access is becoming a global flash point. And that’s especially true in Central Asia, a region singled out by the U.S. Director of National Intelligence as having an “inadequate” ability to provide stability and mitigate political grievances over water. Here, international water rights hang between economic, political and environmental disaster.

In Tajikistan, the upland source of the Amu Darya River, efforts to harness the flow of water to liberate the region from dependence on fossil fuels – as well as regular energy blackouts – have challenged an unsustainable status quo.

Tajikistan wants to resume work on a dam on the Vakhsh River that would increase manyfold its electricity generation capacity and light up villages all the way to Pakistan, several hundred miles away. Originally chartered in the Soviet era and then delayed by civil war, flooding, stop-and-go funding and international gridlock, the Rogun Dam project is a necessity which has long been denied to the Tajik people.

The powerful Vakhsh River will provide energy to Central Asia (photo by Gary Ryan)

Six months from now, the winter snow will be replenishing the Vakhsh River at its mountain source and Tajikistan will have to run its turbines at full capacity to help keep a population as big as New York City’s from freezing in the high country (Tajikistan is 93% mountainous). This situation is made worse by Uzbekistan’s propensity to shut off gas pipelines and ban energy transit from other countries into Tajikistan – an action which epitomizes the kind of zero-sum perspectives which have pervaded the region.

Creating a ‘Win-Win’

Yet, with top United Nations water experts gathering nearby in two weeks, the Rogun Dam could still become a symbol to the world of how water projects can generate mutually beneficial outcomes. After all, a South and Central Asia which is served by vast quantities of clean, sustainable energy would have huge comparative advantages benefitting all countries in the region.

Numerous independent and world-renowned experts have argued that the Rogun Dam, when operational, would provide a valuable source of green, environmentally friendly energy which would be both cheap and plentiful – meeting not only domestic energy needs, but also those of neighboring Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Since Rogun is located upstream from the Nurek Dam – a major hydro-electric power station and reservoir built during the Soviet era – the new system of dams which would be created would also enable the water flow to be managed more effectively, to the benefit of all riparian, i.e. downstream countries.

For this to happen, however, all interested parties must overcome the zero-sum focus which has plagued the region and commit to finding a ‘win-win’ solution.

For its part, the U.S. government would be wise to use its influence in the region to encourage all parties to come to the negotiating table, given that regional stability that could be created by such a solution. As a 2011 Senate Foreign Relations Committee reported outlined:

By neglecting the interconnectivity of water issues between Central and South Asia, the [existing] U.S. approach could exacerbate regional tensions. Our activities should be carefully calibrated to address a broad range of needs and encourage reluctant state actors to come to the negotiating table…while regional stability will not be determined solely by our efforts to support water cooperation, regional stability can be strongly undermined by misguided support.

UN Water Conference will attract head of state, political leaders, diplomats as well as academics and business leaders(photo by Gary Ryan)

The High-Level International Conference on Water Cooperation is coming to Tajikistan’s capital city of Dushanbe on August 20. Its goal is straightforward and complimentary to the recommendations above: get politicians, scientists, think-tanks and thought leaders and potential investors talking with NGOs and each other – just a two-hour drive from the unfinished dam’s shadow.

Tajikistan has already shown willingness to compromise in the pursuit of a lasting solution. It has, for instance, suggested that the dam’s reservoir be filled over a longer period of time than the original 8-10 years in order to mitigate any effects on downstream agricultural production in Uzbekistan.

Furthermore, it has pledged its continuing commitment to use no more than its quota of water under international law – they currently draw less than 15% of the Amu Darya for their own needs – enabling every other drop to continue flowing into agricultural fields downstream.

This kind of leadership from Tajikistan’s President, Emomalii Rahmon, should be encouraged by the international community. He has offered concrete concessions which could avert conflict and implement a solution which is considerate of all regional actors. For a cooperative solution to be brokered, however, other actors with voicable concerns must be encouraged to do the same.

Investing in Central Asia’s Future

Already, more than 98% of Tajikistan’s electricity comes from its rivers, making it incidentally one of the greenest nations on the planet. Unfortunately, generating hydroelectric power depends on water moving over spillways, and in wintery January natural flows are lowest. That’s not a bad thing for the cotton farmers downstream who aren’t irrigating during the cold season, but it means Tajikistan and neighboring Kyrgyzstan, both upstream nations, go from having too much power in summer and spring to rolling blackouts during the bitter cold winter when the Tajik people need heat and light most.

A deeper year-round reservoir of water behind the dam’s turbines would eliminate the seasonal flood-or-freeze cycle that the mountain states are trapped in, which is a big part of the argument behind building more dams like Rogun and letting Tajikistan conserve the spring and summer floods for later.

A long-delayed World Bank report on the issue will shed light on the ramifications for all parties when it’s finally ready for release after the U.N. water conference. Expert estimates say filling the Rogun reservoir would diminish only 1-1.7% of the river – depending on the period of time taken to fill the Dam – and have no noticeable impact on downstream agriculture.

One initiative which would greatly benefit downstream agriculture, and which could be pursued in parallel to regional hydropower development, is to invest in upgrading the region’s agricultural systems – the dilapidation of which has led to a rapid decline in farm output over the past decade.

In all downstream countries, irrigation is notoriously inefficient, with almost 60% of all water used for agriculture being lost or wasted.  Installing a drip system across the Uzbekistan’s cotton belt, for instance, would allow 35% to 40% of all water currently pumped into the fields to continue downstream toward replenishing the sadly depleted Aral Sea.

Rather than letting declining cotton production serve as a disincentive for developing the region’s hydropower potential, the relevant actors would be better served addressing their existing agricultural inefficiencies. By lowering the consumption of water for agriculture, Central Asia’s agricultural sector would be vastly more efficient, the Aral Sea crisis could be averted and the region could harness its hydroelectric potential without fear.

The costs of such projects are often high, but the benefits would be much greater and should be seen as an investment in the future of Central Asia’s agricultural, water management and cooperative initiatives, and energy sustainability.

Too Valuable to Waste

The overall potential for hydropower in Central Asia is huge, with Tajikistan alone having the ability to generate 4,700 megawatts of power, 98% of it from hydroelectric sources. Adding the Rogun Dam to the grid would contribute another 3,600 megawatts and have juice left over to light up every home in Afghanistan and a large swathe of Pakistan.

Fast developing Dushanbe (photo by Gary Ryan)

This should be of particular interest to countries having participated in the ISAF coalition in Afghanistan. As they prepare to withdraw their troops in 2014, the rehabilitation of Afghanistan is vital to maintaining the fragile stability that has cost so many lives, and so much money, to create. The rehabilitation of Afghanistan’s economy, in particular, will be greatly enhanced by such a large supply of cheap, sustainable energy – enabling the country to revive a whole raft of enterprises and irrigate vast areas of agricultural land.

And that’s just the start. The country’s rivers have enough untapped power to generate 527 terawatt-hours of electricity a year – enough to meet all existing demand for Pakistan, Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, plus part of India, without burning a single barrel of oil or cubic foot of gas.

Providing power for 600 million people, over 8% of the planet’s population, in an almost entirely carbon-free manner, is a true game-changer that could contribute toward saving the broader climate, reverse ecological disasters like the Aral Sea collapse, and ultimately make the world a better place for every living thing.

The above won’t happen right away, and and it can only happen after much international cooperation and compromise. But it can start with completion of a dam project, and the dam project can start when people begin talking across their comfort zones. Central Asia’s hydroelectric potential, just like its water, is too valuable to waste.

This entry was posted on Saturday, August 24th, 2013 at 7:59 am and is filed under Tajikistan.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  Both comments and pings are currently closed. 

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