At the recent high-level exchanges, two Central Asian nations Uzbekistan and Tajikistan agreed to identify projects to expand their multifaceted relations. Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s meeting with his Tajik counterpart Imomali Rahmonhe in Dushanbe last week also discussed their preparedness in the wake of the withdrawal of the US troops from Afghanistan. Both countries share borders with Afghanistan. Tajikistan is set to hold a foreign minister meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO)’s Afghanistan Contact Group from July 13-14.
It is believed that these high-level exchanges will not only encourage bilateral and regional efforts but will also seek recovery to overcome the negative economic consequences of COVID-19. Other regional projects discussed during the visit of Mirziyoyev included integrated use and the protection and the management of transboundary watercourses, energy, and socio-economic development.
Over the past decades, relations between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan have remained cold and uneasy. The bitter relations meant that Tajiks and Uzbeks living on both sides of the 1,312 kilometers (815 miles) long common border were cut off from their families. Little possibilities were available for the population living along borders to engage in significant income generation opportunities via transit and trade. Plans for the construction of the Rogun hydroelectric power station on the Vakhsh River in Tajikistan were put on hold for several decades. Flowing from Tajikistan, Uzbekistan always sought unrestricted access to the Vakhsh River for irrigation of its cotton production.
However, Tashkent changed its position in 2016 following the death of President Islam Karimov, who ruled the country for 27 years. Under President Mirziyoyev, two major concessions were announced in 2018. First, Uzbekistan ceased to object to the construction of the power project. In November 2018, the first hydroelectric unit was inaugurated. Uzbekistan is now participating in Tajik hydropower projects, which are jointly benefiting the two countries. Upon completion of the project, the Rogun Dam with a height of 335 meters will become the tallest hydropower dam in the world. Second, Tashkent announced to resume natural gas supplies to Tajikistan at lower rates than global prices.
The two presidents spent a whole day in the Soghd province that borders four provinces of Uzbekistan. There looks an agreement that improved bilateral understanding can open ways for employment and revenue generation for the border population. Uzbeks comprise 1.24 million that is 13.8% of Tajikistan's total 8.99 million population. Tajiks comprise 1.54 million out of Uzbekistan’s 30.8 million.
The two leaders have lately agreed that the integrated use of water and energy resources of Central Asia must be carried out considering the interests of all states of the region through open dialogue, strengthening mutual understanding and developing constructive cooperation, searching for mutually acceptable, fair, and rational solutions.
-Joint hydro projects
To manifest this objective, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan will jointly be developing plans to build two hydropower projects with a total capacity of 320 megawatts on the Zarafshan River in Tajikistan. Hence, the issue of cooperation in the water and energy sector has taken an important place in the bilateral agenda.
According to Vyacheslav Kulagin, the director of the Centre for Energy Markets Research in Moscow, developing the proposed hydroelectric power plants will allow the unified energy network of Central Asia to expand its potential.
“Although the region has good hydro potential, the generation of electricity had been pending for over a long time. The main hurdle was the difficulty for countries to agree among themselves on the dams,” he said.
The two presidents expressed mutual interest in developing regional partnerships in the field of rational and equitable use of water resources. The two sides announced to establish a joint-stock company to prepare a feasibility study for the construction and operation of two hydroelectric power plants in the Zarafshan River basin. That should resolve the issues of water management and equal distribution of electricity on both sides of the border.
They also agreed to build the hydroelectric power station at Yavan in Tajikistan with an estimated cost of $282 million and a capacity of 140 MW. This will follow by the construction of a second hydroelectric power station with an estimated cost of $ 270 million and a capacity of 135MW and production of 500-600 million kilowatt-hours.
Environmentalists in Uzbekistan are optimistic that leaders of the two countries have increasingly recognized the need to improve legal mechanisms for the integrated and effective use of transboundary water resources in Central Asia.
Following an agreement signed in May 2021, Tajikistan will supply electricity to Uzbekistan till September. Tajikistan exports electricity to Uzbekistan when it has surplus electricity during the summer months after meeting its domestic requirements.
Dushanbe had agreed to supply surplus electricity in 2018, But then it was discontinued in 2009 when Uzbekistan withdrew from the Central Asian Regional Energy Network. To meet its energy needs, Uzbekistan then began importing electricity from Kyrgyzstan in 2018, and from Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan in 2019.
By Zaki Shaikh
- The author is a UK-based analyst and has worked with universities in three Central Asian countries.
* Opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of the Anadolu Agency.