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Analysis: Central Asian electricity

disclaimer: image is for illustration purposes only
by John C.K. Daly
Washington (UPI) Aug 7, 2008
As the Russian Federation and the United States continue their "son of the Great Game" tussle for the hydrocarbon riches of Central Asia, Washington has quietly and adroitly developed a program that will earn America more profound gratitude from locals than any number of bilateral military operations and lectures on human rights.

The U.S. Agency for International Development is reporting that, as part of a USAID project, representatives of Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Tajik and Uzbek energy concerns met July 30 in Kazakhstan's largest city, Almaty, to discuss a regional model for electrical power transmission.

What is most interesting about the USAID assistance plan is that it is a tacit acknowledgment by Central Asian governments that one of the lingering legacies of the Soviet era, the promise of nationwide power generation, 81 years after the Bolshevik seizure of power in the Russian empire, remains unfulfilled.

Vladimir Lenin, founder of the Soviet state, made power generation a keystone of his administration. In 1920 his government established the "Gosudarstvennaia komissiia po elektrifikatsii Rossii" ("State Commission for Electrification of Russia"), better known by its acronym GOELRO. Scheduled to last 10 to 15 years, GOELRO was intended to be the centerpiece of Russia's recovery from the ravages of the civil war that followed the revolution, and was the Soviet government's initial centrally planned project for socialist economic recovery and development, becoming the prototype for subsequent Soviet Five Year Plans. Lenin put the highest priority on the project, stating, "Kommunism -- eto est' Sovetskaia vlast' plius elektrifikatsiia vsei strany" ("Communism is Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country").

Central Asia's participation in the USAID project is a tacit admission that Lenin's great vision remains unfulfilled for many in Central Asia's agrarian communities, either by the Soviet Union or its successor, the Russian Federation.

Using technology unavailable in Lenin's time, by October the project will develop computer energy transmission models for the most efficient management of Central Asian electrical production and transmission. USAID energy expert Sergei Elkin said, "This regional energy model will provide immediate information about capacities in each sector of the system, reducing electricity cuts in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan."

The USAID project builds on successful earlier ones developed for the Black Sea and Caucasian nations of Bulgaria, Moldova, Romania, Turkey, Ukraine, Armenia and Georgia and is considered an efficient paradigm for investment planning, identifying surplus electrical generation as well as markets for exporting the surplus electricity.

Before investment bankers begin popping champagne corks, however, more than a few outstanding problems remain to be resolved about another interrelated critical regional shortage -- water. Once again, the regional inequities date back to the Soviet era, when Moscow's centrally planned economic policies exacerbated tensions between the Soviet Central Asian republics which have only sharpened since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Simply put, the region is water-stressed, with the majority of the region's water reserves being found in mountainous Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, leaving downstream Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan heavily dependent on the two alpine nations releasing the dammed-up headwaters of the region's two most important rivers, the Amu Darya and Syr Darya, on a regular basis. While that occurred in the immediate post-Soviet era, the tacit arrangement has become increasingly frayed as the republics' economic policies increasingly diverge, with no quick resolution in sight. Furthermore, all indications are that in the short term, the tensions will only increase.

The 1,500-mile Amu Darya and the 1,380-mile Syr Darya begin high in the Pamir and Tien Shan mountains, controlled by Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, to flow westward to empty into the Aral Sea, which, because of 50 years of catastrophic Soviet planning, has shrunk 60 percent. The Aral, once the world's fourth-largest inland sea with an area of 28,000 square miles, has now shrunk to approximately 8,920 square miles. The Amu Darya arises from the Panj River in Tajikistan, while the Syr Darya originates in Kyrgyzstan. Canals and irrigation channels increasingly diverted their flow into an inefficient Soviet-era agricultural infrastructure, primarily for cotton production. According to a recent World Bank study, nearly 60 percent of water intended for farms does not reach the fields.

In the post-Soviet era, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan were hobbled with their Soviet agricultural legacy, while hydrocarbon-poor Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan relied more and more on their water resources and hydroelectric facilities to generate power, which led to increasingly erratic releases of water to the newly independent downstream nations. The problem was immediately recognized in the wake of the collapse of communism; in March 1993 the presidents of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan established the Interstate Commission for Water Coordination to coordinate regional policy, but while the ICWC has held 50 meetings during the last 15 years, little has been achieved, leaving each nation increasingly to develop its own policies.

But the USAID proposal, by bringing in outside expertise, may well prove the "honest broker" and by rationalizing energy output among the "Stans," wean Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan from their reliance on hydroelectric power, thereby in turn leading to a more rational water policy for the region. As an old Aral proverb states, "In every drop of water there is a grain of gold."

After 81 years, rural communities in the most far-flung regions of the former Evil Empire may finally be getting a light bulb in one of the brightest victories of capitalism over communism.

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