Tajikistan Energy Opportunities - An Interview with Tajikistan's Ambassador to the US
On 26 May, Tajikistan's Ambassador to the United States Abdujabbor Shirinov spoke openly about the energy and water shortages impacting the region, joint collaboration between Tajikistan and Afghanistan, the construction of a large hydro-power key to Tajikistan's energy security, and oil and gas exploration where preliminary assessments tend to show an untapped potential that could lead to the country's energy independence.
The Central Asia nation of Tajikistan - flanked by Afghanistan, China, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan - could play an important role in helping to stabilize Afghanistan, with which it shares a 1,206-kilometer border and in which the Tajiks are the second largest ethnic group after the Pashtuns. Tajikistan could also become an important strategic route for the transit of goods and energy in the form of oil and gas pipelines and high power electricity lines.
That said, the free flow of people and goods remains a political and geographical challenge throughout the region. Tajikistan is water-rich, but energy-poor, unlike Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. With 93 percent of its territory composed of mountains, Tajikistan has a huge hydropower potential of more than 527 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity per year; however, production stands at only 16.5 billion kilowatt-hours.
According to Shirinov, three interconnected energy-related issues pose major challenges to the region: energy exchange, water usage and distribution, and mutual understanding and cooperation.
Below is the condensed version of the interview.
Energy Exchange: As a whole, Central Asia is rich in fossil fuels and renewable energy sources sufficient to meet the needs of regional economies and beyond. Natural resources are unevenly distributed, however, with Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan enjoying greater energy sources than Kyrgyzstan or Tajikistan, though the latter two have sizable hydro-energy resources. “Yet, unfortunately, these resources […] are under-utilized. [Tajikistan] takes the 8th place for its waterpower resources in the world. The country uses only 16-17 billion kilowatt/hr (less than 5 percent) from a total of 527 billion kilowatt/hr that potentially could be used,” the Tajik ambassador said. The collapse of the Soviet Union saw a progressive deterioration of the region’s water and power settlements. “Tajikistan faces critical electricity shortage that limits the economic development of all sectors of the economy […].
Water Usage and Distribution: According to Shirinov, “extensive irrigation in Central Asia has resulted in large ecological problems such as the drying of the Aral Sea, leading to an economic catastrophe. At the beginning of this century, the area of the irrigated land reached 9 million hectares, and most of that is used for growing water-thirsty crops such as cotton and rice. Today, there is little water flowing into the Aral Sea. Furthermore, there has been a sharp demographic increase in the region, according to Shirinov, which is also affecting the water balance. Water resource management in Central Asia, where there is a fairly large water imbalance among nations, continues to be regulated by a number of Soviet-era and post-Soviet-era documents, which Shirinov said have helped the countries to overcome water-management problems. “It is important that these institutions are ready to contribute to strengthening mutual trust among Central Asia nations,” he said.
Mutual Understanding and Cooperation: There is a great deal of misinformation claiming that Tajikistan’s waterworks facilities upstream of the Sirdarya and Amudarya Rivers are causing the desiccation of the Aral Sea and impacting water resources and the economy and environment of Central Asia countries, according to Shirinov. He says that those circulating the misinformation are opposed to Tajikistan’s hydroelectric development and seek to “deliberately conceal the underlying cause for the Aral Sea catastrophe and the water shortage in the downstream countries.” There remains a conflict of interest here, with Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan seeking hydroelectric development and Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan more interested in conservation and the increase of the water intake quota, he said. This situation is further aggravating water management efforts, as each country seeks its own solution based on individual interests.
Energy Footprints in Afghanistan: Despite the fact that Tajikistan suffers from chronic and debilitating electricity shortages, it has agreements to deliver energy in the summer months to Afghanistan through existing transmission routes. Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Kyrgyzstan have signed an agreement on the development of an energy transmission project for Central Asia (CASA-1000), which provides for the building of high-voltage transmission lines from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to Pakistan via Afghanistan. “We are exploring ways to enhance cooperation, such as in the gas sector. We also have cooperation agreements beyond energy with Afghanistan such as for transportation and cross border trade, cooperation with border troops, in anti-narcotic struggle, on cultural and education areas,” Shironov said.
Transport Problems: The delivery of goods and the transit of goods to Tajikistan is another problem that has been highlighted this year, according to Shirinov. “As of May 12, 2010, over 1,700 of wagons with cargo destined for Tajikistan and supposed to transit through Uzbekistan are being held up in the latter, as are 300 wagons containing cargo destined for NATO forces in Afghanistan. I believe this problem can be addressed within the OSCE framework for a resolution. Uzbekistan’s mentions of technical reasons and natural disasters which allegedly led to the detainment of Tajikistan’s wagons in its territory do not stand up to criticism.”
The Kyrgyz Aftershock: The violent protests that led to the overthrow of Kyrgyz president Kurmanbek Bakiev and the ensuing unrest and political crisis has threatened to spill over into other Central Asia countries. However, Shirinov said he was “confident this kind of calamity cannot happen in Tajikistan because we already had learned a very bitter lesson during a devastating civil war that lasted from 1992 to 1997.”
Security: Central Asia is fraught with security issues including religious extremism, terrorism and narco-trafficking. In this context, Kazakhstan, which took over the OSCE chairmanship on 1 January 2010, has announced that it will “pay greater attention to the needs of the Central Asian region with a focus on Afghanistan, which is very actual and much needed,” Shirinov said.
Economy and Environment: As OSCE chair, Kazakhstan also has a promising agenda to address important regional issues such as infrastructure development, customs and trade procedures, energy and environmental security, and migration. “On the environmental front, the drying out of the Aral Sea and melting of glaciers and snowcaps” will require much attention.
Governance: Improved legislation, institutional reform, rule of law, human rights, democracy, tolerance, intercultural dialogue, and human trafficking “should be at the center of attention and we think Kazakhstan will work on them, and Tajikistan is keen to associate itself [with] these efforts,” Shironov said.
Oil and Gas Development: Though Tajikistan is not a major oil and gas hub, exploration is being conducted, with Tethys Petroleum the first to sign a production-sharing agreement, and starting the appraisal of drilling operations in August 2009 on the Komsomolsk field, which could contain over 2 billion cubic meters of natural gas. While the prospects are promising, Shirinov says that “all these results are far behind […] what we achieved during the best years.” He cited 1973 and 1979, during which were recovered 520 million cubic meters of gas and 418,000 tons of oil. “Now we produce very small amounts, many times less than in the 1970s.” Diversification of import routes for oil and gas to Tajikistan is paramount, and the idea of building pipelines connecting Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan – with the distribution center in Afghanistan – is an increasingly attractive one. “Considering recent data on hydrocarbon fuel in the depths of Tajikistan and Afghanistan, we hope that investors will appear.”
Hydro-electric development: In early 2010, Tajikistan launched an ambitious program to finance the completion of the Roghun hydropower dam project (HPP), originally a Soviet project, which today is perceived as the country’s road to energy independence. The construction of the HPP is being financed by share purchases and the government, with the total cost estimated at more than $1.3 billion. So far, some $185 million has been collected. However, this is a regional sticking point, as downstream Uzbekistan is strongly opposed to the HPP, and multilateral organizations are waiting for feasibility and environmental impact studies before they get involved. Shirinov claims the issue has been politicized. He said that some three years ago, Tajikistan had asked the World Bank about feasibility and environmental studies in order to eliminate concerns about any potential negative impact the project may have and to attract international investment. In March 2010, the World Bank published a shortlist of 10 companies interested in conducting the studies. The results should be ready by late 2011 to mid-2012.
Tajikistan’s energy security challenges could be resolved through the implementation of hydro-electric projects, Shirinov said. “Recently, the intentions of the Republic of Tajikistan to complete the construction of the waterworks facilities that were launched in late 1980s and the construction of new hydroelectric systems face incomprehension and backset from some regional countries in Central Asia. In the meantime, Tajikistan would greatly benefit from foreign direct investment, notably to build small & medium-sized hydropower plants, to conduct oil & gas exploration and to develop the use of renewable energies.
Finally, “Tajikistan is very open and flexible” in terms of production-sharing agreements, according to Shirinov. “We also have tax exemptions depending on the size of investment and on the implementation of modern technologies. Significant efforts are undertaken to improve the business climate. Tajikistan was included in the list of ‘Top Ten Reformers’ in the World Bank Survey ‘Doing Business 2010’.”