Heated disputes over the allocation of energy and water have been the defining feature of relations between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan over much of the last decade. Although the distrust between the two countries has deep historical roots, the present tensions revolve primarily around the Rogun Dam project. So far, both Tajikistan and Uzbekistan have been unwilling to discuss solutions that would be acceptable to both countries. Yet, without a compromise over Rogun, it is highly unlikely that the strained relations between the two neighboring states will go back to normal. Is compromise over the dam project possible?
BACKGROUND: The most contentious feature of the Rogun Dam that Tajikistan has been building since 2006 is its height. The 335-meter giant was designed by Soviet engineers in the 1970s to overtake Norak – also on the Vakhsh River in Tajikistan – as the world’s highest dam. In addition to reflecting the overall Soviet obsession with larger-than-needed engineering projects, the massive dam made sense from a purely utilitarian perspective. It was designed to create a huge reservoir that would irrigate over three million hectares of land in downstream countries, particularly in Uzbekistan, and enable multi-year water storage and regulation for regional irrigation purposes. It was also designed to increase hydroelectricity generation and enable the construction of major industrial enterprises in Tajikistan. Although the construction began in 1982, the break-up of the Soviet Union prevented the project from completion.
Emerging from a devastating civil war and facing recurrent power shortages in the 2000s, Tajikistan has sought to utilize its primary resource – an enormous potential for hydropower production – to develop into a prosperous state. The Rogun Dam scheme became the cornerstone of the Tajik government’s ambitious economic development program. The dam has been promoted as a shortcut to energy independence and economic growth. If the dam is completed, it will enable Tajikistan to generate about 13 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity annually. This will not only help the country meet all of its domestic needs but will also make Tajikistan a net exporter of electricity. What experts in Dushanbe prefer not to mention is that the generation of this amount of electricity does not require a 335-meter high dam. By building the dam based on the original Soviet blueprint, Tajikistan seeks to be able to control the flow of the Vakhsh River, including for political purposes.