On March 10, the World Bank regional director for Central Asia, Motu Konishi, announced in Dushanbe that the bank has found the funding for carrying out a feasibility study and environmental assessment of the controversial Rogun hydropower station project on the Vakhsh River in Tajikistan. Konishi’s statement came almost one year after the bank agreed to finance the study with a particular focus on the potential regional implications of the Rogun dam. It will take 18 months to complete the impact study and, if the project proves financially and environmentally sustainable, Konishi said the World Bank will “assist the Tajik government to create an international consortium to build it.” In the meantime, the Tajik government will continue building the dam with the bank monitoring the works.
The World Bank’s announcement generated considerable enthusiasm in Tajikistan where the Rogun project has long been regarded as the country’s shortcut to energy self-sufficiency and economic development. Government representatives and independent analysts agree that the impact assessment will at the very least encourage evidence-based discussion of the project’s environmental implications. According to the Tajik hydropower expert Georgiy Petrov, the study will demonstrate to what extent the downstream countries’ concerns about Rogun’s impact on the flow and quality of water are justified. “If the assessment proves that the project has faults, we can modify it accordingly to address such issues”, Petrov said. “In any case, this will break the deadlock in our discussion of the project with downstream countries”.
Tajikistan’s plans to complete the massive Rogun project have long confronted serious opposition from downstream countries, most notably Uzbekistan. Authorities in Tashkent insist that a reservoir behind the Rogun dam will inevitably require increased water withdrawals from the Vakhsh River, thus affecting the flow of water that Uzbekistan needs to irrigate its cotton fields. Uzbekistan is also concerned that the giant power station will degrade water quality in the regional river system. So far, Tashkent has successfully prevented Tajikistan from securing foreign funding for the US$ 3 to 6 billion project. In addition, Tashkent has recently been blocking Tajik freight trains passing through the Uzbek territory with construction materials, fuel and equipment bound for the Rogun site, causing a major diplomatic row between Tashkent and Dushanbe.
Tajik political analyst Holmamad Samiev argues that the question of Rogun’s environmental impact has been overly politicized in Uzbekistan. President Islam Karimov’s administration recently amended the election law, reserving 15 seats in the 150-seat lower house of the Uzbek parliament, Oliy Majlis, for the newly established Ecological Movement of Uzbekistan (EMU) which is heavily involved in advocating against the Rogun project and similar undertakings in Kyrgyzstan. In addition, colleges and universities in Uzbek regions bordering on Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have lately organized several rallies against the two countries’ hydropower development schemes.
Tashkent has repeatedly stated that its position in respect to the Rogun project is dictated solely by environmental considerations, demanding that the Rogun project undergo an independent international assessment. Hence, many in Tajikistan now view the World Bank financed study as a decisive step in addressing Uzbekistan’s concerns. This is why after the meeting with the bank’s regional director, Tajik president Emomali Rakhmon promised that the assessment effort will involve a broad group of representatives from different countries, and its results will be made available to all countries in the region.
Alarmed at the growing row between Dushanbe and Tashkent, the international community will be watching carefully for the study to be as reliable as possible and for its findings to be accepted by both upstream and downstream countries in Central Asia. Visiting Tajikistan on April 6 as part of his tour of the region, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said both Tajikistan and Uzbekistan “should respect the final outcome of this technical assessment by the World Bank”.
However, some analysts argue that even if the study confirms the environmental sustainability of the Rogun project, it is highly unlikely that Uzbekistan will change its stance on the project due to the major political considerations involved. According to Samiev, Tashkent opposes Dushanbe’s hydropower development projects because an enhanced ability to regulate water flows through the massive Rogun plant would give Tajikistan considerable leverage over Uzbekistan. Therefore, the environmental assessment of the Rogun scheme might at the end merely lead to a shift in focus from environmental to political issues in the discourse surrounding cross-border water use in Central Asia.
By Alexander Sodiqov (04/28/2010 issue of the CACI Analyst)