WASHINGTON, Feb. 21 (UPI) -- While mountains and brutal winter weather seem to go together, the frigid cold front that has settled over Central Asia is causing unparalleled misery in two of the region's poorest nations, Afghanistan and Tajikistan.
While Afghanistan has received extensive international press on its population's sufferings in the region's worst weather in 2-1/2 decades, Tajikistan, nestled among the Pamir and Tien Shan mountain ranges, is in equally dire straits but is receiving much less media coverage. Temperatures have fallen in some places to -31 F.
Of all the former Soviet "stans," Tajikistan suffered the most following the Soviet collapse in 1991. The following year, Tajikistan descended into a brutal civil war. When it ended five years later with a U.N.-brokered agreement, Tajik civil strife had claimed more than 50,000 lives and more than one-tenth of the population had fled the country. The country's slow recovery means that two-thirds of Tajikistan's 6 million people are estimated to live below the poverty line.
What is adding to the country's misery is its legacy of Soviet-era "mega" projects, in this case the Nurek hydroelectric facility on the Vakhsh River. Nurek, which supplies 70 percent of Tajikistan's power, was begun in 1961 and completed 19 years later on a deep gorge on the Vakhsh River with nine turbines, producing 3 gigawatts of the country's 4 gigawatt hydroelectric output. Nurek's reservoir covers 38 square miles and is more than 40 miles long. Nurek is now nearly idle because its Toktogul water reservoir is down to a critical level as rivers feeding it freeze over. While estimates vary, local sources say Nurek's 20-foot-deep reservoir reserves are shrinking 1-3 feet per day, which at some point will force the closure of the hydroelectric power plant. Runoff from melting snow to replenish Nurek's reservoirs is not expected until March or April.
Further increasing the country's misery, energy imports from Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are down because they need energy for their own consumption. Tajikistan's Energy Ministry complains that Uzbekistan cut natural gas supplies to Tajikistan on Jan. 24 over payment disputes and subsequently suspended electric power exports to Tajikistan on Feb. 4, causing Turkmenistan to assist Tajikistan by doubling its export of electricity to 7 million kWh. On Feb. 10, however, Turkmenistan itself suffered from a severe cold front and reduced exports to its usual rate of 3.5 million kWh. On Jan. 24, during a meeting in Moscow, Tajik Prime Minister Akil Akilov asked Kyrgyz Prime Minister Igor Chudinov to increase electrical supplies to Tajikistan, but now Kyrgyzstan has completely halted exports of electricity to Tajikistan. Chudinov explained Bishkek's decision by noting that beginning in February, Kyrgyzstan was to supply 11 million kWh of electricity daily to Tajikistan, while in April-May Tajikistan in turn was to supply 55 million kWh of electricity to Kyrgyzstan, but as Tajikistan refused to comply with its contractual commitments, Kyrgyzstan stopped supplying electricity entirely.
Adding to the population's suffering, in early January Tajik officials announced a 20-percent electricity price increase to permit the government to meet its fiscal obligations to the World Bank, and the price for electricity is expected to continue to rise until 2010.
In the midst of rolling blackouts in the capital, the mayor of Dushanbe has demanded utilities implement the schedule set by Prime Minister Akil Akilov and make electricity available to the population from 5 a.m. to 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. The United Nations estimates that electricity supplies would be at just 40 percent of capacity until the spring and that up to 2 million people, or one-third of the population, need food assistance this winter. It has made an immediate emergency appeal for $25 million from international donors to help alleviate the crisis.
Tajikistan has made extensive international efforts to diversify is energy supplies. In December 2006 the Tajik government began construction of the 670 MW hydroelectric Sangtuda power station, a joint venture between the Tajik government and Russia's Unified Energy Systems Co., which is scheduled to become operational next year, while China in January 2007 signed an agreement to construct the Zeravshan (Yava) hydroelectric plant in northern Tajikistan, with an annual output of about 600 million kWh. Iran has expressed interest in participating in the construction of the Shurob Hydroelectric Power Plant, as well as offering assistance in completing construction of the Sangtuda plant; the United States is funding the $3.2 billion construction of the Dashtidjuma Hydroelectric Power Plant on the Pyandzh. While all these projects are noteworthy and will eventually resolve Tajikistan's energy shortages, they are of no use in the present crisis.
The final note to Tajikistan's suffering is that specialists are now warning that when the spring thaws come, the current record snowfalls will likely produce massive flooding.