Central Asian Electricity: Mi CASA No Es Tu CASA

Courtesy of The Economist, a look at a planned electricity swap in Central Asia:

WAR in Afghanistan, corruption and regional rivalries: until recently these were the main hurdles to a $1.2 billion, American-backed project to send surplus electricity from Central Asia to energy-hungry Afghanistan and Pakistan. Now comes another: there is unlikely to be any surplus electricity.

The concept, first aired eight years ago, was simple. In summer, when Afghanistan and Pakistan most need electricity, melting snow fills hydropower reservoirs beyond capacity in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. The idea was to harness the spillover, generating electricity to send south along a transmission line to needier places (see map). In winter, as rivers freeze and both former Soviet republics themselves face dire electricity shortages, all the electricity generated would be kept at home.

But in the years since Western governments mooted the 1,200-kilometre (750-mile) power line, known as CASA-1000, electricity shortages in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have worsened. This summer, to conserve water in readiness for the winter, Kyrgyzstan is actually importing electricity from Tajikistan.

Local shortages are largely caused by inefficiencies in Soviet-era infrastructure and a failure to reform state-run energy monopolies. Backers of the transmission line claim it would bring revenues to deal with those failings; Pakistan is expected to pay more than three times as much for electricity as rates prevailing in Central Asia. Funds exist to get construction under way. The World Bank has pledged $530m in grants and loans, and America’s State Department has offered another $15m. In theory, building can start as soon as the four countries involved sign power-purchase agreements.

Other obstacles exist, however. One is political. America had hoped that the CASA line would add zip to its lacklustre “New Silk Road” strategy, a plan that Hillary Clinton backed when she was secretary of state. The idea was to lessen Russia’s influence over its former vassals while helping Afghanistan to trade more and improve its infrastructure. But the influence of America in Moscow’s backyard is fading as it winds down its military efforts in Afghanistan. In June the Americans quit their airbase outside Kyrgyzstan’s capital, Bishkek. In its place, China is gobbling up energy contracts, and Russia is making efforts to drag some Central Asian countries into a new political-economic union.

The electricity project is proving divisive even among those who are meant to gain from it. Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are both keen to build giant dams, and the idea of generating electricity to send south gives the plans internal legitimisation. But that infuriates downstream Uzbekistan, which fears losing water supplies. Its president, Islam Karimov, has even said that the dams could provoke a war.

Tajik officials speak as if the new power line and their dream dam, Rogun, which would be the world’s tallest, are inseparable. “With Rogun we can ensure energy not only for ourselves, but also for Afghanistan and Pakistan. Just as Arabs sell oil, we will sell electricity,” says Davlatbek Salolov, deputy director of Tajikistan’s largest hydropower plant. Yet that would depend on Tajikistan’s unsavoury regime resisting the temptation to divert the energy it produces to pet projects, such as a subsidised state-owned aluminium smelter, whose profits are hard to trace.

In Kyrgyzstan, which is heavily indebted, support for the power line is lukewarm. Officials sound as if they are being coerced into the project, pointing to local energy shortages and to Kyrgyzstan’s $200m share of the costs. Outside the government, there is outright hostility. Nurzat Abdyrasulova of UNISON, an energy watchdog in Bishkek, says that the project is not going to make money and will generate friction with Tajikistan, whose territory Kyrgyzstan’s trade must cross. The two countries already disagree so strongly about half their mutual border that soldiers have twice exchanged sustained fire this year. That is hardly the best environment for putting up pylons.

This entry was posted on Sunday, August 17th, 2014 at 2:05 pm and is filed under Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  Both comments and pings are currently closed. 

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