By Nate Schenkkan
A combination of severe cold and antiquated infrastructure this winter is leaving millions of people in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan in the dark. Power outages are posing an especially difficult test for Kyrgyzstan’s nascent parliamentary democracy.
In Tajikistan, where rolling blackouts have long been a regular feature of life, residents in the capital Dushanbe report that electricity supplies are actually better so far this winter than during the same period in previous years. Rural areas of the country, however, are still lacking power, with many towns having only about six hours of electricity per day. Part of the reason for the improved situation this year is that officials appear to have curtailed electricity exports to Afghanistan.
Power cuts have also been reported in Uzbekistan, Central Asia’s most populous state and a minor energy exporter.
It seems Kyrgyzstan is the hardest hit Central Asian state this season. Scarcely a month into office, Kyrgyzstan’s new prime minister is struggling with regular power outages of the kind that helped bring down President Kurmanbek Bakiyev in 2010. An unusually harsh winter is straining the energy grid’s capacity, which is dependent on a steady supply of melted snow. In an effort to quell rising anger, which has seen protesters block roads in Bishkek, the government has responded by ousting electricity officials and publicly criticizing the energy minister.
Power outages are not a new phenomenon in Kyrgyzstan, where the energy generation, distribution, and transmission systems have not been updated since the Soviet era. In addition to the failure of obsolete equipment and cables, as well as frost, unregulated growth, especially in Bishkek, has caused a surge in demand that, according to energy officials, the system is simply not equipped to handle.
But rather than give reforms the time they need to take hold, top officials seem to be looking for scapegoats, industry observers say. On January 23, two top technocrats at Severelektro, the distribution company responsible for the north of the country, were forced to resign in a move reformers called counterproductive.
“We need stability, we need to be given time to conduct reforms,” said Nurzat Abdurasulova, the co-chair of a public advisory council overseeing the Ministry of Energy.
Part of the present problem may be related to overconfidence among some top officials. In November, Minister of Energy Askarbek Shadiev, a non-specialist with a good reputation among reformers, announced that the national system was “100 percent ready” for the heating season.
When an early cold snap descended in mid-December, however, temperatures reached minus 21 degrees Celsius (minus 6 Fahrenheit) and the promise of regular supplies quickly proved impossible to fulfill. Blackouts across the country grew more frequent as the cold snap stretched into the New Year. Using a tactic common for Kyrgyzstan, protesters have repeatedly blocked roads to demand service, most recently along the capital’s Deng Xiaoping Avenue, a major thoroughfare in western Bishkek, on January 29.
In a small grocery on the avenue, women wearing heavy coats were sitting in darkness at four in the afternoon one day recently. “We get about three hours of electricity a day,” said Natalya Ten, an ethnic Korean selling homemade carrot and cabbage salads. “It shuts off at least four times a day. I’ve got a small son. How am I supposed to raise him, if I can’t even heat up kasha?”
In the eyes of reformers, Prime Minister Omurbek Babanov has been the first to pass on responsibility for the crisis, especially in the public dressing-down he gave to Shadiev on January 19.
“In 2009, [Babanov] was vice premier in charge of this sector, and what did he do to fix it?” protested Nikolai Kravtsov, an energy expert and member of the ministry’s advisory council. “You can’t call someone to account when you have not given [him] the chance to do his work.”
As finger pointing goes on in Bishkek, the possibility of more serious outages looms. Due to Soviet integrated planning, more than one-third of the energy Kyrgyzstan produces in its southern hydroelectric plants reaches the north via a high-voltage line that passes through Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan before returning to Kyrgyz territory.
With Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan engaged in a tense standoff over Kazakh claims that Uzbekistan is illegally tapping energy from the line, both countries have threatened to “withdraw” from what is referred to as the Central Asian Unified Energy Grid by tearing up existing agreements, thereby leaving their downstream neighbor Kyrgyzstan in the dark. In the worst-case scenario, 40 percent of customers in northern Kyrgyzstan would face severe electricity shortages.
In the medium-term, a solution to the regional problem exists in the idea of a new high-voltage line, Datka-Kemin, that would carry power directly from south to north without transiting other countries. Negotiations with China over financing the project, suspended after Bakiyev’s ouster, have resumed. Kravtsov predicts the line could be built in two and a half years, and that along with ongoing repair work to replace obsolete cables and equipment, the system could be righted.
It will not be cheap. A 2011 USAID-sponsored report suggested that merely repairing the system and making investments to ensure reliable service would cost as much as $2.1 billion over a five- to 10-year period. That estimate did not take the potential Datka-Kemin project into account.
To bring about the kind of change the industry requires, patience and political will are needed. “You don’t plant wheat and then expect to harvest the same day,” said Kravtsov.
Nate Schenkkan is a Bishkek-based journalist.