Rogun Dam promises energy security for Central Asia

Rogun Dam promises energy security for Central Asia

In 1976 the Soviet Union began construction of a major hydroelectric project in the Tajik Soviet Socialist Republic. The Rogun Dam was to be a major feat of engineering which would bring a reliable, sustainable source of electricity to the region. Today, nearly four decades later, the dam sits unfinished in Southern Tajikistan. Its unfinished status represents both continued hope for energy security in Tajikistan and Afghanistan, as well as the problem of interconnected economies and environmental systems in post-Soviet Central Asia.

Tajikistan suffers from chronic electricity shortages; the World Bank says 70% of Tajiks often face “excessive shortages” in the winter. The completion of Rogun would make Tajikistan energy independent, meaning that it would no longer face severe shortages whenever its neighbor and rival, Uzbekistan, decided to block gas imports. Beyond that, it would also provide a massive amounts of electricity to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Tajikistan’s president, Emomali Rahmon, promises that Rogun presents a panacea to Tajikistan’s energy woes and weak economy. Other regional actors are less thrilled with the prospect. In particular, Uzbekistan argues that the dam would decimate its cotton production, and contribute to the region’s further desertification.

Rogun dam in Tajikistan

The Rogun dam may provide greater energy security, but threatens Uzbek farming and possible desertification (Photo credit: The Economist)

While the debate regarding the dam has frequently descended into the petty and personal, Uzbekistan’s concerns are real. Soviet policy made the Uzbek economy reliant on cotton by rerouting the rivers of the region. In the process, the Aral Sea was destroyed. Undoubtedly, the current Uzbek production of cotton is unethical, as it is often reliant on unpaid child labor. However, if the Rogun dam did lead to increased water shortages in Uzbekistan, it would not only harm that country’s questionable cotton production, but also impact other farmers and the health of people in an already water-impoverished country.

Currently, the debate is at a standstill, as both countries wait for the release of two studies from the World Bank relating to the technical soundness of construction and the possible environmental impacts. At the present juncture, however, it seems that the World Bank will lend its approval to the project, while suggesting a number of minor adjustments to limit its negative environmental impact.

Western defense communities have been largely supportive of Rogun. Generally, the pro-Rogun argument in the American defense community states that arguing while increased Uzbek-Tajik tensions are in no one’s best interests, the successful creation of the dam would develop the Afghan and Tajik economies in ways that would limit regional extremism. In many ways, this is an oversimplification.

First, while a steady source of electricity would stimulate some elements of the Afghan economy, that country remains economically hampered by a number of other major factors, including in regions which currently have steady access to electricity. A more effective electricity network is certainly necessary to Afghanistan’s development. However, without a solution to widespread corruption, electricity alone will do little to prevent poor Afghans from seeking out economic and security benefits from organizations like the Taliban.

Second, the successful creation of the Rogun dam would likely contribute to the longevity of the Rahmon regime in Tajikistan. Rahmon is sometimes treated as a bulwark against regional extremism and civil war by the American defense community. However, under his rule, the Tajik economy has faltered not only to limited electricity, but also due to widespread corruption and nepotism.

Tajikistan currently ranks 141/185 for ease of doing business, and according to Freedom House, has become increasingly less democratic, more unequal, and more corrupt over the last decade. Furthermore, Tajikistan’s current hydroelectric output is badly mismanaged, and the construction of Rogun would likely further enrich the corrupt leaders of Tajikistan’s hydroelectric companies. As in Afghanistan, electricity is only one element of development for Tajikistan. If the completion of Rogun is accompanied by continued corruption, the broader economic benefits for both Tajiks and foreign investors will be limited.

The completion of the Rogun dam would boost Tajikistan’s economy and likely have a positive impact on many people across Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Certainly, steady access to electricity would help regional economic enterprises grow effectively. Despite this, observers should be wary of Rahmon’s claim that the project would provide a simple cure to the region’s many economic and security challenges.

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