Tajikistan has the capacity to play a major role as a key strategic partner of Europe and the West in Central Asia. This was the view I expressed in a letter to President Jerzy Buzek of the European Parliament and Prime Minister David Cameron of the UK following my recent high-level visit to this fascinating Central Asian nation. In my capacity as Personal Representative of the President in Office of the OSCE (Kazakhstan) responsible for ecology and the environment, I travelled to Tajikistan in mid-September for meetings with the country’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, Hamrokhon Zarifi, and Minster for Energy and Industry, Gul Sherali. I also met with the Speaker of the Majlisi Namoyandagon (Tajikistan’s lower house of parliament), Shukurjon Zuhurov, the Chairman of the Committee on Environmental Protection, Khursandmurod Zikirov, and the First Deputy Minister of Melioration and Water Resources, Sulton Rahimov.
After a bloody civil war following independence, Tajikistan has emerged as a functioning democracy and model for the region. It has a good record on human rights, and while still a relatively poor country, it has great potential to develop its mineral and water resources, provided sufficient levels of inward investment can be achieved. But it is Tajikistan’s geographical position – nestled high among the Pamir Mountains (long known as the ‘rooftop of the world’), with Afghanistan, Iran and the other Central Asian republics as neighbours – that render it of true strategic importance to the West. This is a highly sensitive area: war rages on Afghanistan; Islamic terrorists lurk in the mountains of nearby Pakistan; and meanwhile Iran seeks to spread its ideological influence across the whole region. Drug trafficking is rife. But nowadays Tajikistan, under the firm leadership of President Emomali Rahmon, stands guard at the forefront of the fight against drugs and terrorism. As such, it is a key strategic ally for the West.
Tajikistan has a major role to play not only as a guardian, but also as a bringer of stability to this volatile region. Through the exploitation of its massive water resources, Tajikistan will soon be capable of generating electricity in excess of its own energy requirements. A 500-kilovolt transmission line linking Tajikistan and Afghanistan is already under construction, and will doubtless stand as a positive contribution toward restoring peace and re-building Afghanistan’s shattered economy.
Of course, water issues affecting the upstream and downstream nations of Central Asia are a source of constant tension, and the proposed construction of the Rogun Dam – located 68 miles east of Dushanbe, Tajikistan’s capital, on the Vakhsh River – has become a focus of controversy. When operational, Rogun will produce a massive 3600 megawatts at peak capacity. Over 45 miles of Soviet-era underground tunnels are already in place, and 5000 workers are currently engaged day and night in the construction of the giant underground halls which will house the dam’s turbines. The intention is to dam the surrounding gorge to a height of 335 metres, which if successful will make Rogun the tallest dam in the world. I visited the site and was deeply impressed by what I saw.
However the Uzbeks, whose country lies downstream from Rogun, are concerned that the dam would be vulnerable to severe seismic activity, leading to catastrophic consequences if it were ever breached. German and Pakistani experts have been employed by the World Bank to assess the feasibility of the Rogun project, and are expected to announce their findings in 2011. Nonetheless I am convinced, following my own visit to Tajikistan, that this project is both safe and regionally essential.
Tajikistan currently generates 95 per cent of its electricity from hydroelectric power projects. The overhead lines and infrastructure that will one day be used to sell surplus electricity to neighbouring countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan are already being built. It will be at least 10 years before Rogun becomes fully operational; meanwhile the Tajiks guarantee that they will continue to supply their downstream neighbours with the same amount of water that they enjoy now via the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers. They claim that their new system of dams and hydroelectric power plants – comprising Rogun as well as the plants Sangtuda 1 and Sangtuda 2 – will provide a properly managed water source which will benefit everyone. Pointing out that 60 per cent of the rivers that serve Central Asia are sourced in Tajikistan, they claim that they have never and will never restrict water flow to their downstream neighbours.
Once it is operational, Rogun will provide a source of cheap, plentiful and environmentally friendly energy which will meet the need of Tajikistan while also providing essential energy for neighbouring countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan. It seems like a win-win situation in an area that is desperate for energy. Combined with a more strategic use of water in the downstream countries, through technologies such as concrete-lined reservoirs and droplet irrigation, there is no reason why the abundant water resources of Central Asia cannot be distributed fairly and used in a way that enhances, rather than threatens, the future of the Ferghana Valley region.
Tajikistan is leading the way in water resource management in Central Asia, providing energy and well-managed water supplies for its neighbours. It deserves the encouragement of the West in its endeavours.