By Azad Garibov
For the last several months, we have been witnessing a serious escalation of tensions between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan that has brought the two neigbouring Central Asian countries’ already strained relations close to a complete collapse. The reason for the current dispute is the Tajik government’s plans to build the Rogun dam on the Vakhsh River. Although the initial construction began in 1982, the break-up of the Soviet Union did not allow the country to complete the project. In 2007, Russia partnered with Tajikistan to complete the dam, but the two parties soon fell out. The Tajik government announced in early 2010 that it would try to raise by itself the $1.4 billion needed to finish the dam and the construction was re-launched.
The 334-meter-high dam of Rogun, if it is ever completed, will be one of the world’s tallest dams and allow Tajikistan to produce about 13 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity annually. However, Vakhsh is the major tributary to the Amudarya River – a vital water source for downstream Uzbekistan, and therefore Tashkent seems highly concerned about the possible negative impacts of the project on Uzbekistan.
Dushanbe: Rogun dam is the guarantee of economic development
Trying to recover from the devastating impact of the civil war of the 1990s, the Tajik government wants to utilize its natural resources to facilitate the development of the extremely poor country. Tajikistan’s primary resource is its enormous potential for hydropower production, which is planned to be used for transforming the country into a prosperous state. The Rogun dam project holds a notable position in this plan. Tajik officials have long been promoting the project as a shortcut to energy independence and economic growth, saying that it will enable the country to not only become self-satisfactory in electricity supply but also export it to neighboring Afghanistan and Pakistan. Thus, the Rogun dam project became the cornerstone of the Tajik government’s ambitious economic development program.
Tashkent: Rogun dam is a serious economic and environmental threat
From Uzbekistan’s point of view, the picture is quite different and they have their own legitimate reasons for opposing the project. Uzbekistan claims that the dam will decrease the flow of water in the Amudarya River, which is the main feeding source for irrigation canals in Uzbekistan. The majority of the Uzbek population lives in rural areas and is employed in the agricultural sector, particularly in cotton production. Any decrease in the water level in the river will inflict immense damage to Uzbekistan’s agriculture, where the water shortage is already felt even without a dam upstream on the Vakhsh.
The gigantic dam project carries with it environmental risks as well. Water shortage could completely dry out the Aral Sea, which has already lost 90% of its original size due to the low level of water reaching the sea. Its location in the seismically-active region is another serious concern, and the dam is claimed to be vulnerable to earthquakes that could destroy it and consequently cause massive flooding in the downstream areas of Uzbekistan.
Finally, being able to regulate the flow of water in Amudarya, Tajikistan could be used as a means of political pressure and make water supply to Uzbekistan dependent on Dushanbe’s good will. Dushanbe could also use water as a trade commodity and relate the supply of water to Tashkent’s delivery of gas. Therefore, at a more fundamental level, Uzbekistan fears that an ability to control the flow of the Amudarya River will provide Tajikistan important geopolitical leverage in a region where the Uzbekistan has long sought to be a leader.
Uzbekistan is determined to block the project
Tashkent has undertaken a number of measures in order to block the construction of the dam. Uzbekistan has resorted to diplomatic and economic pressure on Tajikistan, and has successfully persuaded possible foreign investors, notably Russia and China, from participating in the project. Since the end of 2011, Uzbekistan has imposed a transport blockade on Tajikistan, which is connected with outside world mainly through the transport network passing through Uzbek territory. Starting from April 1, 2012, Uzbekistan also shut down the gas supply to Tajikistan. This threatens to stop the operation of an aluminum plant at Kurgan-Tyube, near the border with Uzbekistan, which is one of the few competitive enterprises of Tajikistan and responsible for 70% of the country’s industrial export. Another significant plant for the country, Tajiksement, can also be forced to shut down its production because of the lack of the gas. Bearing in mind that the closure of these big plants will result in the closure of the dozens of other relatively smaller enterprises which are connected to those, this would be a serious blow to the economy of Tajikistan.
Politicization of the dispute as a crucial impediment to compromise and reconciliation
Another very important factor standing in the way of a possible compromise is the significant political capital that the leaders and the governments in both Tajikistan and Uzbekistan have invested in promoting and opposing the project. In Tajikistan President Rahmon has repeatedly claimed on TV that Tajikistan will complete the project at “any expense.” He referred to the construction of the dam as a “battlefield for national pride and honor.”
Uzbekistan’s leadership has also mobilized state-owned media to present the Rogun project as an imminent threat to the country’s agriculture and environment. A number of popular demonstrations against the dam project have been staged throughout the country. The media depicted Karimov as a leader who is determined to deter the “Rogun thereat” to the well-being of his nation. As a result, the Uzbek government’s success or failure in preventing the realization of the project will have an important impact on the public perception of Karimov’s strength as a leader.
Looking forward: need for depoliticization
Now, both sides are waiting for the results of the independent assessment started by the World Bank about the potential social and environmental impacts of the dam on the region. The study will be completed in the end of 2012. An optimistic expectation is that the assessment will serve as the basis for negotiations between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan over the future of the project.
However, due to the heavy politicization of the dispute, now disagreement between the two countries is not about only the technical characteristics of the dam or its potential social and environmental disruptions. The debate over the Rogun dam has long acquired an important symbolic character for both countries and has turned into issues of “national pride” and “national interest,” which are much less amenable to negotiation and compromise. Both regimes have made an issue of proving their passion about the well-being of their nations, and they invested so much political capital in promoting and. opposing the project that it would be very difficult for any of them to compromise for possible reconciliation. Therefore, any serious attempt to convince the leaders of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan to negotiate and reconcile their positions regarding the dam project should begin with depoliticizing the debate over the Rogun dam project.
Azad Garibov is a foreign policy analyst at Center for Strategic Studies (SAM).