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Mainstream, VOL XLIX, No 25, June 11, 2011

Gigantic Hydropower Projects in Central Asia threaten the Security of Millions of People

Tuesday 14 June 2011

(Following the publication of the piece—“Using Water Conflicts for US Benefit in Central and South Asia” by Hasan Hamidullah—in Mainstream (May 14, 2011), we were able to lay our hands on the following article on This does not provide any idea of the US attitude to such water conflicts but offers an objective view of the Uzbek-Tajik stand-off on the proposed Rogun Dam on the Vakhsh river, based on the expert assessment of a Russian specialist with regard to such major hydroelectric projects. We are reproducing it, with due acknowledgement, for our readers’ benefit. —Editor )

Construction projects of gigantic hydropower facilities in Central Asia are a great concern for all those who objectively review the possible consequences of their hasty implementation. Uzbekistan fundamentally and consistently calls for the need of an independent international assessment of such projects’ impact on environ-mental and water balance in the region, as well as threats of anthropogenic disasters.

Today this view is shared by many indepen-dent experts in various countries. For example, the article “Epos rather than reality: the fate of the mega hydropower plant in Central Asia remains unclear...” written by the Director of the Bishkek branch of the Institute for CIS Countries, Doctor of Historical Sciences, Professor, member of Russian Geographical Society, Aleksandr Knyazev, and published in several online news agencies, gives an unbiased, deep and thorough evaluation of the problem.

It is an impartial opinion of the author, who could not be suspected of lobbing anyone’s interest.

He notes that the water basin of Amudaryo and Syrdaryo rivers constitutes a single organism providing water supply and well-being in Central Asia. He underscores that the interests of Uzbekistan in the use of transboundary rivers of Syrdaryo and Amudaryo are not just ignored in the upper reaches. “The fact that Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are already running construction of hydrotechnical facilities allows us to speak about large-scale threats to security, first of all for Uzbekistan, as well as Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan,” Aleksandr Knyazev writes.

At the same time, the expert draws attention to the fact that “there are strict international regulations that govern the construction of such facilities which are ignored in the upper reaches of rivers. However, neither Kyrgyzstan nor Tajikistan are signatories of all international conventions associated with this issue, particularly the Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes (Helsinki, March 17, 1992), which Russia adheres to since October 1996, the Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses (New York, May 21, 1997) and many others. However, because of purely selfish understanding of their own national interests, the two republics, got stuck on hydropower projects as a certain cure to save their economies, and stubbornly insist on the implementation of these plans using semi-primitive methods, due to scarce and mostly borrowed budgets and in endless search for a foreign investor.

He also recognises the absurdity of the allegations that the country in whose territory the transboundary waters originate may dispose them at its discretion, and the invalidity of debates about which of them are internal, and which are not.

“If we proceed from the fact that the rivers Narin-Syrdaryo and Amudaryo with their inseparable feeder Vakhsh are transboundary watercourses (it can be easily seen on a map), then Kyrgyzstan simply does not have the right to build Kambarata hydropower stations without permission from Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Tajikistan has no right to build a hydroelectric power station on the transboundary river without the consent of not only Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, but also Turkmenistan which is located downstream. It does not matter how many times we say that Vakhsh is an internal river, it still is one of the main feeders of Amudaryo, so in this case all the international principles on the use of trans-boundary rivers must be applied,” according to Aleksandr Knyazev.

The author clearly declares that “the current situation with the Rogun hydropower plant can be easily compared with the Kyrgyz Kambarata-2, which Kyrgyzstan is also building on its own. Both of these projects are finally crimes directed against their own people, and neighbouring countries. The quality of this construction clearly does not meet the necessary requirements—a dam for Kambarata-2 that is being built can serve as an example of that. After unique, in general blasting works in December last year for the transfer of soil, Kyrgyz builders did not achieve the necessary results. Not to mention the fact that the ground obstruction thus created did not reach the design height, irregularities in the blasting operations resulted in a large number of voids, which are now being primitively covered: by raking up and pouring ground from outside. The safety of such facility is quite arguable.”

He noted the challenge of ensuring the safe operation of existing hydropower facilities repeatedly raised by experts: “It would be far more efficient to put in order Tajikistan’s Nurek and Kyrgyzstan’s Toktogul hydropower stations and their reservoirs inherited from the USSR. In both cases, the small accumulation of water is connected, along with objective reasons, with the fact that throughout the post-Soviet time, no one has been seriously engaged in preventive work, upgrading of these stations, siltation of reservoirs exceeds all permissible limits. The recent accident at Nurek hydropower plant brought no serious consequences, but it is a quite serious signal both to Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.”

IN the context of all these issues Knyazev declares: “Therefore we must reach agreement. Otherwise—nothing prevents Uzbekistan from blocking Rogun, Kambarata, whether any of them will be built, even if it will require military intervention. And the leadership of Uzbekistan would probably be right, since it will be ensuring the safety of not only ten million comprising its own population, but also the safety of the population of the three regions of Kyrgyzstan (Osh, Jalalabad and Batken), and one of Tajikistan (Soghd) located in the Kambarata projects’ zone, the Farg’ona Valley.”

“We can only be sure about the fact that the construction of new dams in the background of reductions in water and its growing deficits, its use for energy purposes, without serious consideration can lead to extremely negative consequences for the water balance and sustain-able development,” writes Aleksandr Knyazev.

The expert agrees with Uzbekistan’s demands to comply with the requirements of the country’s interests and security of its population.

“Each country has its own national interests, so the only solution is to find a compromise, each side must make concessions. And the behaviour of Uzbekistan cannot be called aggressive, more likely—it is extremely worried. The leadership of Uzbekistan is absolutely right, if it is already thinking about the possibility of applying the most serious action against Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan as the interests of Uzbekistan will not be taken into account in these projects. And the emotionally discussed height of the dams and their character is not that important, but the quality of dams, scientific approach in defining the potential volume of reservoirs, everything associated with the margin of safety, security—these are all to be the most important things.”

The author cites his Russian colleagues who acknowledge such facts as “unfounded, illiterate use of energy resources, inefficiency and back-wardness of the technologies, lack of qualified engineers and skilled workers.”

And, finally, the last argument of the initiators of construction of large-scale hydropower facilities—huge economic benefits that allegedly can be obtained as a result of their construction and operation—is estimated by the scientist with great skepticism.

“...The big question is also the economic feasibility of the projects,” he writes, analysing the calculations of highly questionable payback for these projects.

At the same time he concludes that for the population it would be much more efficient, economically profitable and safer to build a network of small hydropower stations in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

Speaking of potential external participants of these projects, the author warns: “We all remember how a few years ago, the Chinese side quickly shut down the Zarafshan hydropower plant construction project in Tajikistan—identical to those in Rogun and Kambarata, but on a smaller-scale, realising the possible conflict with Uzbe-kistan, a key country in the region. The recent proposals of the Kyrgyz side to participate in the hydropower projects were treated with barely hidden skepticism by China.

In this regard, he also notes: “Naturally, Russia’s hydropower activities abroad should not be a source of regional conflict that, in relation to projects in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, seems quite real.”

The published article is not always straight-forward. Not all the proposals and conclusions of the scientist can be agreed upon, for example, in the part concerning the establishment of a water and energy consortium. But fundamentally important is that Knyazev is aware of the seriousness of the problem, recognises the validity of the anxiety, Uzbekistan’s concern about the potential of large-scale threats to safety of millions of people living in the region.


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