Two new reports should interest anyone following progress building the world's tallest dam – Tajikistan's 3,600-MW Rogun, EurasiaNet's David Trilling believes.
The World Bank has released drafts of its long-awaited Rogun feasibility studies. They appear to give Tajikistan the green light to build Rogun, saying the dam is the best way to end the country's energy shortages. However, the economic model used to make the recommendation seems to assume a set of unlikely conditions, from financial reforms and improvements in Tajikistan's insolvent electricity industry to a major breakthrough in relations with a prickly neighbor.
Meanwhile, in a second report, Human Rights Watch says the resettlement of 42,000 people whose homes will be destroyed or flooded by Rogun is not going as smoothly as the Government has promised.
The World Bank studies look at technical, economic, environmental and social considerations for three potential heights. Overall, the Bank found the tallest Rogun option – 335 meters, the only one Tajik officials talk about – the most economical: "building a dam at the Rogun site is a lower cost solution to meeting Tajikistan's energy needs than any of the alternatives."
Rogun is controversial not only because some fear Tajikistan does not have the technical capacity or the funds to safely build something that costs around 50% of GDP (between $3 and $5 billion). Downstream, the most populous country in Central Asia is fiercely opposed. Uzbekistan fears Rogun will give Tajikistan unfair leverage and hurt its agricultural sector. Tajikistan says it needs the dam because Uzbekistan and others have pulled out of a Soviet-era, regional energy-sharing scheme, exacerbating Tajikistan's winter energy shortages.
One of the biggest questions is how to pay for it. "At present, actual sources of financing remain unclear and would require further exploration," the World Bank says. The Bank repeatedly stresses that it is not financing the project. But the positive assessment clears the way for Tajikistan to seek outside financing.
The investment climate under President Emomali Rahmon, who has filled the Government with members of his family, does not inspire confidence. It seems unlikely Rogun will be fully foreign financed, the World Bank concedes, pointing to transparency concerns.
Tajikistan could try again to raise the money domestically, as Dushanbe attempted with a hapless forced-shares campaign in 2010. But going it alone will only exacerbate poverty, the Bank warns: "Full domestic financing from tax revenues or government bond issuance, while theoretically feasible, would involve major risks, increase poverty, and cause severe repression of domestic consumption."
The Bank says the best option is mixing domestic financing with equity participation from Tajikistan's downstream neighbors and some foreign loans, though that would still require "bold action from the Tajik Government" – that is financial reforms. But the largest downstream country is Uzbekistan, which has warned that projects like Rogun could lead to war and has refused to participate in regular riparian meetings to discuss the assessments.
Indeed, at times the reports seem to look at Rogun without considering regional dynamics.
Because any hydropower plant depends on seasonal water flows, which are greater in the summer, Rogun cannot meet all of Tajikistan's energy needs, which are projected to continue rising in the 25 to 30 years it would take to build the dam and fill the reservoir. The World Bank's solution is to import electricity from Kyrgyzstan: "All the scenarios, Rogun and non-Rogun, envision some winter import of electricity from the Kyrgyz Republic, some of which are imported from Uzbekistan transmitted through the Kyrgyz Republic."
Except electricity-starved Kyrgyzstan is currently importing power from Tajikistan. And Uzbekistan is short on electricity and barely speaks with either.
The technical assessment found corrective work needed on existing structures at the dam site: "Several of the underground structures, including the two existing diversion tunnels and the powerhouse cavern, would require strengthening and remedial measures, as well as comprehensive monitoring, in order to meet international norms."
With efforts at Rogun shrouded in secrecy, those kinds of details will become especially worrisome should Tajikistan decide to construct the dam on its own.
Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch does not sound too hopeful that the Tajik Government will live up to its commitments to the resettled. The watchdog calls on the World Bank and other international financial institutions to "provide financial assistance to the resettlement process, including funding for effective monitoring."