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Special Report
Last Updated: 03/05/2008
The Tajik Energy Crisis
Muhiba Rabejanova

Muhiba Rabejanova reports on the energy crisis now facing Tajikistan, and the humanitarian disaster which will only be exacerbated by the continued apathy of the international community.

Since announcing its independence in 1991, Tajikistan has been struggling to get on its feet and move on from the old Soviet system to be able to embrace the new one introduced to it by the global community. This struggle has not been easy; from devastating civil war to unstable peace, from one economic failure to another; it has been a difficult path indeed for the Tajik nation. Landlocked, mountainous, situated in one of the most vulnerable areas in the world – Central Asia – Tajikistan is still one of the poorest countries of the former Soviet Union. Along with many economic, social, and political problems, there is one which is the most devastating. Tajikistan has been in the news for many reasons before, but this year all the media appearances were about one thing: electricity shortage. For over 13 years now the country has not been able to provide its people with full electric power in winter time. The situation has been escalating throughout the years to turn into a major crisis. There have been several predictions and hypotheses were made about the causes of the crisis and future developments. In 2006 the situation began to turn from bad to worse. Since then Tajikistan has been experiencing a worse-than-usual energy crisis as it bogged down in negotiations with Uzbekistan over gas supplies, and its own energy sources – electricity and coal – will not be enough to get the country through the brutal winters.

While Tajikistan’s hydroelectric power stations generate excess energy over the summer months, the country suffers serious power shortages in the winter, and households in most areas generally have only four to six hours of electricity at this time. The energy problem remains acute, in spite of the large-scale construction of hydroelectric power stations. Some regions had a limited supply even in summer this year. The energy ministry blamed this on an extremely dry summer and low water levels in the large artificial reservoir at the Norak dam, which powers a hydroelectric station.

Gas supplies from Uzbekistan could save the day, but the planned price increase on energy resources including natural gas could greatly complicate the situation. Tajikistan may be left unable to purchase the same volumes of gas as in previous years. Uzbekistan has already hinted that it will increase the price it charges Kyrgyzstan from 55 to 100 US dollars per 1,000 cubic meters of gas. A similar price might prove too high for Tajikistan, one of the 20 poorest states in the world. The authorities have therefore decided to use local energy sources.  Many analysts see the call to stock up on coal as an attempt to revive the nation’s coal-mining industry, but they doubt that coal can appreciably help the situation. Tajikistan’s collieries might not be able to meet the higher demand. For example, Shurob, one of the largest coal deposits, used to produce up to one million tons a year, but extraction has fallen to a small fraction of that. In addition, mining equipment is now hopelessly antiquated.

In addition to problems with Uzbekistan, over the summer of 2006, the Tajiks failed to come to terms with Kyrgyzstan on supplying electricity for northern parts of Tajikistan. The negotiations fell through because the price the Tajiks offered was too low.

The winter of 2007-2008 has been the harshest one for the Tajik nation. Abnormally cold weather conditions in Tajikistan, causing heavy snowfall and frozen rivers, have damaged water and electrical supply systems and isolated mountain villages. Snowfall in December 2007 was 245% above the historical average for the month. Temperatures of between -8°C and -25°C since the beginning of 2008 have increased demand for heating while at the same time affecting the supply capacity.  This has led to severe rationing of electricity and sharp increases in the prices for fuel. Roads between several districts have been blocked by heavy snowfall, curtailing local supplies of food, fuel and other basic commodities as well as access to health services.  The economic and social shocks as a result of the current cold weather have worsened an already precarious food security situation, especially in rural areas.  Two consecutive poor harvests, combined with doubling food prices in recent months, have left rural populations with few remaining coping strategies. Power to industry has been tightly rationed, and the Government estimates that the crisis has so far cost the economy US$ 850 million in damages and lost revenue.  A final cause of concern is that with such abnormal levels of snow precipitation in all areas of the country, flooding in spring will almost certainly be more extensive this year. 

The Government has made tremendous efforts to secure additional energy supplies and has prioritized electricity supply on humanitarian grounds. In Dushanbe (the capital city of Tajikistan) power is already cut at least 14 hours a day and in most rural areas electricity supply has been cut off completely. On 31 January 2008 the Government of Tajikistan requested the United Nations Resident Coordinator’s assistance in mobilizing international assistance. 

According to the assessment of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the emergency response is managed through Rapid Emergency Assessment and Coordination Team (REACT), Tajikistan’s Disaster Management Partnership comprising civil society, NGOs, the Red Crescent Society of Tajikistan and United Nations. Following the global cluster approach, REACT is subdivided into sectoral groups for which UN agencies and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) provide coordination support.  Rapid assessments were carried out by the involved sectors, namely water and sanitation, health, food, education and shelter, and non-food items. 

The results of the REACT assessments show that the health, lives, and livelihoods of two million Tajiks have been affected by this compound crisis and require urgent assistance.  The sector-specific response plans in this document indicate how REACT partners plan to respond to the needs identified in the assessments. The priorities have been based on the results of the rapid assessment. Given the above, the appeal makes a distinction between interventions that address immediate life-saving needs and interventions that are needed urgently to avert or mitigate foreseeable and preventable life-threatening situations during spring and summer. This appeal seeks $25,192,839 to help international partners (seven United Nations agencies and five international NGOs) support the Government of Tajikistan in addressing the needs of two million people already affected by the compound crises, as well as to undertake preparedness measures for potential flooding in Rash Valley and Khatlon Province during the spring melt.  Partners have indicated that $1,188,911 is already available for their proposed projects, leaving an outstanding requirement of $24,003,928.  Funding for the emergency humanitarian needs in this Flash Appeal is also being sought from the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF).  Targeted assistance will be provided during the next six months, while concerted efforts will be made to mobilize longer-term programs for recovery.

The international power countries have demonstrated interest in the area, including the U.S.A. The country’s Agency for Trade and Development has given the Tajik energy ministry a grant of 800,000 US dollars to assess the potential of Tajikistan along with Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan to export electricity to Afghanistan and Pakistan. The true motive behind the U.S. interest, I believe, is the desire for more political influence in Central Asia.

Some Tajik people are happy that there is finally some focus on this humanitarian crisis that the people of Tajikistan have been going through, while others feel that even with all the international help, real change is not likely to happen. But it is the majority of us Tajiks – who are hopeful and believe in a brighter future – that are holding the country together and not letting it fall into the pit of desperation. Being abroad when your country and the people you love are going through such hard times is not an easy thing to do. This is an attempt for me to spread the word and get more attention and possibly some help from the people and international community. I want to keep hoping and I want the people in my country to keep hoping…we cannot lose it, not now…

Muhiba Rabejanova is a Mater's degree canditate from the UN mandated University for Peace.