Search RFE/RL

Central Asia in Focus: Hydropower Cooperation

Construction of the Kambar-Ata 1 hydro power plant on June 8, 2022, taking place between giant, green mountains. The river winding between them runs muddy and brown.
Jalal-Abad, KYRGYZSTAN — Construction of the Kambar-Ata 1 hydro power plant on June 8, 2022.

What’s Happening in the Region

From Hydro-Conflict to Hydro-Cooperation

Former Uzbek President Islam Karimov once warned that large-scale hydropower projects that threatened the flow of water to downstream countries, such as Uzbekistan, could spark a war in Central Asia.

An agreement for construction of a large hydropower plant (HPP) in Kyrgyzstan was just signed, and Uzbekistan was one of three Central Asian countries that signed the deal.

The energy ministers of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan met in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek on January 6 and signed a “road map” for construction of the Kambar-Ata-1 HPP.

Kambar-Ata-1 was one of the projects Karimov meant when he made his comments about a potential war.

The idea for building Kambar-Ata-1 has been around since the Soviet days. It involves construction of an HPP on the Naryn River in Kyrgyzstan with a capacity to generate 1,860 megawatts (MW).

The part Karimov objected to was construction of a reservoir to hold 5.4 billion cubic meters of water for the HPP.

Karimov was worried about what would happen to agricultural land in his country while water was being siphoned into the reservoir from the Naryn River, which continues flowing into Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.

Uzbekistan has a new president now. When Shavkat Mirziyoev took over in late 2016, he signaled he would not be opposed to construction of large HPPs in the neighboring upstream countries.

Construction of the Kambar-Ata-1 HPP would turn Kyrgyzstan from an electricity importer to an exporter.

Kyrgyzstan’s Toktogul HPP, currently the largest HPP in the country, has a capacity of 1,200 MW and provides 40 percent of domestically produced electricity.

Why It’s Important: The participation of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in the construction of Kambar-Ata-1 is a good sign for regional cooperation. The two countries’ involvement should allay fears of insufficient water supplies during planting season.

Both countries also stand to gain from being able to import electricity from Kyrgyzstan during the spring and summer.

Kyrgyzstan is a poor country and could use the extra revenue from electricity exports and from saving money on energy imports.

Chinese Company Looking to Work Oil Fields in Northern Afghanistan

On January 5 in Kabul, a Chinese company signed a contract to develop oil fields in northern Afghanistan.

China is one of very few countries investing in Afghanistan since the Taliban returned to power in August 2021.

The Taliban’s Acting Minister of Mines and Exploration, Shahabuddin Delawar, said China would invest $540 million in the first three years of exploration.

There are some problems with this deal.

For Turkmenistan, and to a lesser extent for Uzbekistan, Chinese development of fields south of their borders raises security concerns.

Delawar said the oil fields were in the Sar-e Pul, Jawzjan, and Faryab provinces.

Jawzjan and Faryab border Turkmenistan and Sar-e Pul borders both those provinces. Balkh Province borders Uzbekistan.

The Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP) has been attacking the Taliban in northern and eastern Afghanistan for several years. After the withdrawal of foreign forces, ISKP is the Taliban’s main adversary.

ISKP has increased its anti-Chinese propaganda in recent months. On December 12, ISKP militants attacked a Chinese-run hotel in Kabul.

Several Chinese nationals were wounded in the attack.

The Chinese-backed oil project in northern Afghanistan would be a magnet for ISKP militants.

Some of the ISKP militants are Central Asian citizens and the group already has launched rockets from northern Afghanistan into Uzbekistan and Tajikistan in 2022.

The Chinese company undertaking the project is the Xinjiang Central Asia Petroleum and Gas Co.

ISKP has used the Chinese authorities’ brutal campaign against Muslims in Xinjiang as part of the militant group’s online recruitment material, pointing not only to the Chinese government’s abuses of Muslims, but drawing attention to the Taliban’s cooperation with the Beijing.

From an economic point of view, the agreement makes little sense.

Reports say there are an estimated 87 million barrels of oil in northern Afghan fields.

China’s daily oil consumption is roughly 12 million barrels.

The oil is then surely for domestic Afghan consumption, but that raises questions about how the Taliban will be able to pay back the Chinese investment.

Why It’s Important: The project will add to existing security problems in northern Afghanistan by attracting militants who want to target Chinese interests.

ISKP has branded Central Asian governments as enemies, just like the Chinese government or the Taliban.

A Chinese project in Afghanistan, near Central Asia’s borders, would likely bring more ISKP militants to the border area.

That is exactly what the Central Asian governments do not want to see happen as it heightens their own security risks.

The Latest Majlis Podcast

This week’s Majlis podcast looks at Kazakhstan and the situation there since the violence in January 2022 that left at least 238 people dead.

There are still many unanswered questions about what happened and who was responsible. Furthermore, the Kazakh government’s failure to address the problems that started the protests could lead to additional worries and a repetition of unrest.

This week’s guests are: Aigerim Toleukhanova, freelance journalist from Kazakhstan and co-host of Eurasianet’s EurasiaChat podcast; Vyacheslav Arbamov, founder of the news outlet in Kazakhstan; and William Courtney, former U.S. Ambassador to Kazakhstan.

What I’m Following

The Coming Cold Wave

The warnings are going out in Central Asia as the weather forecasts are showing a biting chill will arrive after January 10.

Uzbekistan already extended school vacations to save energy, and Kyrgyzstan is proposing to do the same.

Uzbek authorities are also warning of power outages due to expected increased use of electricity and heating.

Aging power stations and transmission lines failed when cold weather hit in January 2021 and January 2022 and led to widespread power outages that affected Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan.

Kyrgyz President Says Cancel Our Debt and We’ll Go Green

Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov is calling on creditors to write off Kyrgyzstan’s $4.2 billion debt so that country can use the money to construct renewable energy projects (see the first item of the newsletter).

It will be interesting to see if anyone goes for this.

China almost certainly will not.

Kyrgyzstan’s owes China $1.8 billion.

If China is willing to write off some or all of Kyrgyzstan’s debt, it would set a bad precedent as there would be a long line of countries asking the same from Beijing.

Fact of the Week

The number of foreign-made cars bought in Kazakhstan and brought to Russia increased from 12 in 2021 to 668 in 2022, most likely due to international sanctions on Russia for for its war against Ukraine.

Thanks for Reading

Thanks for reading our Central Asia in Focus newsletter! I appreciate you sharing it with other readers who you think may be interested.

Feel free to contact me on Twitter or by responding to this email, especially if you have any questions, comments, suggestions, or just want to connect with me about topics concerning Central Asia.

Please consider filling out this brief survey so that I can better understand how this newsletter can be useful for you.

See you next week for more on what’s happening in Central Asia.

Until next time,