Kazakstan's decision to withdraw from the Central Asia-wide electricity grid and strong hints by Uzbekistan that it will follow suit have highlighted the fragility of energy arrangements in the region. Analysts are warning that political leaders urgently need an action plan to avoid a potential crisis.
The Soviet Union created a common power system for Uzbekistan, Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan which worked as long as they were part of the same state. But the system began fraying at the edges after 1991, as the newly independent countries began asserting competing interests.
Electricity generating capacity is distributed unevenly in Central Asia. Mountainous Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have close to 80 per cent of the region's water resources, allowing them to build and benefit from hydroelectric power stations, whereas Kazakstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan have substantial oil and gas deposits but depend on their smaller neighbours for water.
Disputes arise whenever Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan store up water for the winter, the time they need it most for electricityproduction. The three lowland states want the water to flow downstream in spring and summer to provide irrigation during the growing season.
The Uzbeks export their natural gas to Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. They also supply electricity to Tajikistan, as well as providing a transit route for Kyrgyz and Turkmen electricity going to that country. But Tashkent periodically stops supplying gas in autumn and winter because of non-payment of bills, and earlier this year suspended the transit of Turkmen electricity to Tajikistan.
Following a meeting of the council which coordinates regional power supplies in mid-October, Kanat Bozumbayev, head of the Kazak electricity distributor KEGOC, said he had been told that Uzbekistan was leaving the network.
This was denied in a statement from the Uzbek state company Uzbekenergo. A spokesman said they merely wanted to alter the terms of transit arrangements.
"We would like to charge fees for electricity transits to Kyrgyzstan, which were previously regarded as transfers and were free of charge," he said.
Although the problem was resolved – the Kyrgyz and Uzbeks reached a compromise on compensation – Uzbekenergo subsequently sent out further signals about withdrawing from the entire regional set-up.
In an article published in a state newspaper on November 5, Esso Sadulloev, who heads Uzbekenergo's distribution office, said Uzbekistan planned to leave the Central Asia-wide grid, which he said was become increasingly unsustainable as certain member states were siphoning off electricity
"The unified electricity system is beginning to be obsolete, and is becoming the source of confrontation between participating states," said Sadulloev.
His remarks appeared in the press two days after Kazakstan – Central Asia's strongest economy and major oil producer – made the shock announcement that it too was withdrawing from the grid.
Deputy energy minister Duysenbay Turganov said KEGOC had taken the decision because the system was being disrupted by Tajikistan, which was taking more electricity than it was entitled to and failing to respond to instructions issued by the regional agency which manages the network. In February, Kazakstan temporarily withdrew from the Central Asian energy network because supplies to its southern regions were being disrupted by Tajikistan, which had begun taking electricity from the common grid in order to see its population through the winter months. The Tajiks began tapping the system, without consultation, after Uzbekistan halted transit supplies from Turkmenistan.
Kazakstan's decision had serious consequences for Kyrgyzstan, which was forced to impose strict limits on power use for consumers as the supply faltered.
Energy experts say the current disagreements arise from longer-running shortcomings in the way the network has functioned. Some say it is just a matter of time before the entire system disintegrates.
The Central Asian network links and regulates supplies from 80-plus power stations across the region, and the departure of even one member could prevent it functioning as a whole.
The resulting energy shortages could provoke instability and unrest which no government would want to see. Bazarbay Mambetov, an economist in Kyrgyzstan, says no one can afford to let this happen.
"The energy grid was created as a single mechanism and has been ensuring a reliable, uninterrupted power supply across the region," he said. "Whether its participants like it or not, we are all now linked together by this system."
But it is a network whose infrastructure has not been maintained since the Central Asian republics went their separate ways.
"It is old and it hasn't been properly maintained, and was designed for a different environment," said Cleo Paskal, a researcher on energy and environmental matters at the London-based think-tank Chatham House.
The system was set up based on calculations of rainfall and river volumes over previous decades, whereas environmental conditions in the region may now have changed to the extent that the design is redundant, she said.
NO ONE COMES OUT AS WINNER
Ularbek Mateyev, an energy expert in Kyrgyzstan, says, "The Soviet Union designed and built the most viable energy grid, so no country will benefit from leaving it."
One of the consequences would be to increase the number of outages due to accidents, as there would be no central mechanism for mitigating the effects of power surges by switching supplies from one country to another.
If Uzbekistan, centrally located with the four other states around it, were to leave, everyone else's national grid would be placed under severe strain.
Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan would be worst hit, despite existing hydroelectric schemes and plans to build more, analysts say.
"Tajikistan, the northern part in particular, will suffer most," said Anvar Kamolidinov, a water management expert in Tajikistan. "Soghd province depends on Uzbek electricity coming from the common energy grid. Soghd's power plant at Kairakkum power plant provides only 20 per cent of the energy consumed there. If Uzbekistan leaves, two million people in [Soghd] region will be left without power."
Meanwhile, Kamolidinov said, central and southern Tajikistan will also lose out as they will no longer get power generated in Turkmenistan and transferred through Uzbekistan.
Kyrgyzstan, too, will suffer from the loss of electricity coming from or via Uzbekistan.
Kazakstan's energy minister Sauat Mynbayev says his country would probably struggle through, by keeping a power station in the southern Jambyl region running continuously.
"It would be a huge load, but in terms of power supplies, it would help us – and also northern Kyrgyzstan – survive this period," he said at a government meeting in late September.
Experts warn, however, that the larger states will face significant problems just as smaller Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan will. Neither Uzbekistan nor Kazakstan is currently in a position to assure a constant, uninterrupted flow of power.
Kamolidinov believes Kazakstan and Uzbekistan would have left the parallel system already if they were not dependent on their neighbours to fill in the gaps at certain time.
"Kazakstan might leave, but it will mean additional costs, including spending to build the infrastructure that will be required," he said. "If Uzbekistan goes, it will have supply problems at peak periods in the morning and evening. Without the Nurek power plant in Tajikistan, it will be technically problematic and costly for Uzbekistan to meet this peak consumption.
Mambetov say the Uzbeks also need to be able to draw on Kyrgyz electricity.
"Leaving the common grid will have negative consequences for Uzbekistan itself, first and foremost," he said. "The Uzbek energy grid needs Kyrgyz power in order to regulate a constant current."
POWER CLOSELY CONNECTED WITH REGIONAL POLITICS
Aside from periodic electricity shortages, the breakdown of regional energy arrangements will have wider implications, analysts say.
For one thing, neither the Tajiks nor the Kyrgyz will have much of an incentive to honour the already loose arrangements for opening up the dam sluices in spring to let water down the Amu Darya and Syr Darya, so that their neighbours have enough irrigation for their crops. Their natural tendency will be to hold as much back until late autumn, when they need to begin generating more power.
Within the Soviet Union, water and fuel were exchanged between republics as free, shared commodities. But in the post-1991 world, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have become increasingly annoyed that their neighbours charge them for gas, oil and coal, yet their own natural resource – water – still has no monetary value placed on it.
Kamolidinov expressed the sense of dissatisfaction common in Tajikistan that "virtually for nothing", the country stores up the waters of the Syr Darya river in its Kairakkum reservoir for release to Uzbekistan and southern Kazakstan when they need it.
"It's going to be difficult to reach a [water] agreement on previous terms after the [Uzbek] power supply to Soghd region is interrupted in winter," he added.
Many analysts see disputes over water and energy as inextricably linked with the political differences between the Central Asian states.
"The system inherited from the Soviet Union is in the process of being dismantled because Central Asian leaders are unable to reach agreement," said Shairbek Juraev, an assistant professor of international and comparative politics at the American University in Central Asia, based in Kyrgyzstan.
Disagreements over water and energy have been festering for a long time, but Juraev says political confrontation has picked up pace recently.
"There is a risk that the situation may worsen, and that it will affect ordinary people most of all, with shortages of power and water and limits on freedom of movement," he said. "It may lead to deteriorating conditions along borders, interethnic tensions, and a general worsening of the political situation in the region."
Uzbekistan's unhappiness with the current electricity arrangements form part of a wider pattern of disagreements with Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, over their plans to complete major new hydropower schemes.
The Roghun and Kambarata power plants would bring Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, respectively, a lot closer to self-sufficiency in energy. But Uzbekistan worries that the new dams would block off water from the Amu Darya and Syr Darya, and is insisting on an international study on the possible effects of the projects before they are completed. (For more on this, see Uzbek Overtures to Kazakstan on Water Dispute.)
Russia's role in the region is an added complicating factor. There is talk of Moscow investing in both the Roghun and Kambarata schemes, and the Uzbeks are also concerned about plans for a new Russian military base in southern Kyrgyzstan, not far from their border. (See Kyrgyzstan: Russian Base Plan Alarms Tashkent on this issue.)
These interconnected issues make it difficult to attribute blame to any one state when disputes arise.
"All the countries in this region do not take one another's interests into account, and are thus responsible for the current situation," said Farhod Tolipov, a political analyst in Tashkent. "Since they gained independence, these countries have had many reciprocal grievances and disagreements.
"You cannot criticise Uzbekistan alone, for announcing its decision to leave the common grid even though it was aware this would have certain consequences for its neighbours. Its actions were prompted by the behaviour of Kyrgyzstan, which is planning to build the Kambarata plant and open a Russian military base in the south, although it knows the reaction this would bring from Uzbekistan."
According to Paskal, worsening inter-state relationships are ultimately the legacy of Soviet-era arrangements for "enforced cooperation" which are no longer working.
In addition, she said, the once-united Central Asian states are starting to undergo "real cultural polarisation and social fragmentation, which make cooperation difficult. If social cohesion starts to break apart, all relations become difficult."
BUILDING SEPARATE NETWORKS
When it comes to electricity, however, the Central Asian states are not standing still, but are already taking steps to forge new one-to-one arrangements with one another while strengthening their own national grids.
The Kazaks, Kyrgyz, Tajiks and Uzbeks are currently working towards bilateral and trilateral deals on infrastructure and supply, bypassing the regional level at which agreement seems so difficult.
As Nargiz Kassenova, professor of political science at the Kazakstan Institute of Management, Economics and Strategic Research, noted, "The countries in the region are making great efforts to ensure energy security by making their own grids more autonomous and developing new capacity."
Mateev agrees that a movement towards fully independent power networks is under way, while pointing out that it goes against the international trend towards greater cooperation and efficiency through economies of scale.
"In the next three to four years, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan will find solutions and free themselves from energy dependence on Uzbekistan," he predicted.
Kamolidinov agreed that the Tajiks and Kyrgyz were heading away from reliance on other Central Asian states.
"Energy independence has long been on the agenda of these two countries," he said. "Uzbekistan leaving the grid and the problems this will create for them will only strengthen their desire for energy independence."
Gulnura Toralieva is a freelance journalist from Kyrgyzstan.
Institute for War & Peace Reporting
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