Tajiks invest in mega-dam project

Dushanbe says Roghun hydro-power plan will bring prosperity, but others are concerned.

    In Khujand, Tajikistan's second largest city, a crowd of several hundred students stroll down the main street, waving Tajik tricolours in support of the Roghun dam project [FORESTIER-WALKER]

    “Roghun is our national pride, our brightest future. It's the light in Central Asia!”

    One by one, a class of 11-year-old students at School 125 stand and recite patriotic verses about their glorious Tajikistan and a place called Roghun.

    Their classroom is heated with a wood burner. A naked energy-saver light bulb hangs redundantly from the ceiling. The children read and write by daylight.

    Like most institutions in Tajikistan, School 125 lacks a regular daytime power supply, even on the outskirts of the capital Dushanbe.

    High up in the mountains east of here lies Roghun. Perched on a hillside, the town's proud inhabitants can peer down on a clear day to a vast construction site unfolding on the valley floor beneath them.

    What they are witnessing is the rebuilding of one of the largest hydroelectric dams in the world. It is a project which began under Soviet rule, but stalled after independence and Tajikistan's civil war during the 1990s.

    Tajikistan could be a great hydro-power: Its snowy mountains and glaciers hold 60 per cent of Central Asia's water resources. With a total projected dam height of 335m, the engineers at Roghun want to maximise the power that can be harnessed from the annual 20 billion cubic metres of water flowing down the valley along the River Vakhsh.

    Catchall solution

    The dam project has become a symbol of Tajik nationalism, even in Dushanbe's schools

    Roghun is the Tajik government's catchall solution to the slow pace of Tajikistan's development since the breakup of the Soviet Union almost 20 years ago.

    Under-investment and dependence on an ageing Soviet regional grid have caused chronic power-cuts that have affected every household, hospital, business and classroom in the country.

    Standing above the gorge in which mechanical diggers and trucks churn away through an expanse of rust-coloured mud, chief engineer Rustam Husseinov explains that there is already a cascade of hydroelectric dams on the River Vakhsh.

    But Roghun will be the largest of them all.

    "After Roghun is completed, there won't be any power cuts. Electricity is a social product and it means there will be improvements in every sphere."

    Rustam echoes a mantra that is being taught in School 125 and in schools all across Tajikistan: Roghun is the answer to the country's prayers.

    Various estimates put the total cost of the project between $2bn and $6bn. It is a huge amount for a country whose total GDP in 2008 was just $5.1bn. But until foreign investment arrives the Tajik government is for now pressing ahead with its own funding.

    A remarkable propaganda drive has made supporting Roghun every Tajik's patriotic duty. State television beams daily footage of Roghun to the nation, accompanied by stirring national music and dance in televised concerts and 'social advertising'.

    Roghun shares are now on sale to the Tajik public. Billboards in every town proclaim the project's importance with the simple underlying message: Invest.

    Forced contributions

    Since January, businesses and households have been buying shares totalling more than $170m, in a scheme the government insists is voluntary.

    Emomalii Rahmon, the president, has asked Tajik families to contribute up to 3000 Somoni ($685) each. And yet most people earn less than $2 a day.

    There is evidence that many Tajiks are being pressured into buying shares although few are prepared to speak publicly about it.

    One Western diplomat described the scheme as "generally forced contributions", in which government and private organisations are diverting staff salaries.

    "I know a doctor from a large hospital whose entire staff have had their salaries held up for seven months. Management says 'you will be paid in July. The money is going to Roghun'. When you squeeze money like this you increase poverty and food insecurity. It's beyond what most people can afford to pay."

    The situation is exacerbated by the fact that many civil servants, such as doctors and teachers, must make additional money to supplement meagre incomes, usually through bribes for services. Observers fear that the dam project could encourage corruption.

    Raising economic concerns

    Citizen investors have poured millions into the project estimated to cost up to $6bn

    The donor community, including the International Monetary Fund, has voiced numerous concerns. It warned in February that "while Roghun was an important element of the government's energy strategy" the share campaign could "dampen growth in 2010 by up to one percentage point".
    The government has not provided any indication of how the money is being spent, or any explanation of how shareholders can recoup their investments.

    Roghun's first stage, when it reaches electric power generation capabilities, is to be completed in 2012. But some analysts have described the time frame as "excessively optimistic".

    They say that Tajikistan's entire electricity grid requires upgrading in tandem with the Roghun project.

    Future financing will have to come from foreign creditors. But with Tajikistan's reputation for corruption, and its failure to continue paying Russian backers for another hydro-power project, it remains to be seen which countries would be prepared to invest.

    Unhappy neighbours

    Investor enthusiasm may change after a World Bank supported study assessing the economic and environmental impact of Roghun is completed. The study will take into account the concerns of Tajikistan's downstream neighbour, Uzbekistan.

    Uzbekistan has raised strong objections over the building of Roghun because it could disrupt the flow of water it needs to irrigate its main cash crop - cotton. It has also cited the environmental risk of creating a giant reservoir in an earthquake zone.

    Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan's mutual interdependence in which Uzbekistan provided electricity and gas and Tajikistan supplied water has come under increasing strain.

    The Uzbek government has at times cut off energy supplies to Tajikistan over payment disputes, so the Tajiks have not felt inclined to give Uzbekistan a say in their grand engineering project.

    And the Tajik government may have other interests at heart: It wants to export future hydro-power through Afghanistan to Pakistan via a transmission network. It also operates a power-hungry aluminium plant, Talco, which consumes almost half the country's present electricity output.

    Cheap hydro-power enables the Tajik government to subsidise aluminium production which can then be sold at world prices. But the US State Department's 2009 Human Rights Report on Tajikistan notes that Talco's off-shore management company, reportedly owned by senior politicians, has not undergone an audit.

    Rallying cry

    In Khujand, Tajikistan's second largest city, a crowd of several hundred students stroll down the main street, waving Tajik tricolours. Amongst them are the organisers of the march, local businessmen and women.

    Chanting, 'Roghun! Roghun!', in a boisterous display of patriotic fervour, young men arrive at the town hall, before charging up the steps and inside the building, where local bank accountants await them.

    It is tempting to consider Roghun is the compelling solution to the problems of a power-starved impoverished nation that has such enormous hydro-power potential.

    But as the clerks thumb their way through thousands of dog-eared, hard-earned banknotes and the new shareholders emerge clenching purple slips of paper in their hands, an uncomfortable reality sets in.

    If Roghun is ever completed, questions remain over how Tajik households and businesses will immediately benefit from their patriotic investments.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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