Tensions and the role of climate change
Construction of the Rogun Dam on the Vakhsh River, a tributary of the Amu Darya River, first began in 1976, but was repeatedly delayed due to a lack of funding, floods and civil war in Tajikistan (Eshchanov et al., 2011). The dam has also been the centre of tensions between Tajikistan, located upstream where the dam is situated, and Uzbekistan, located downstream. Tajikistan believes hydroelectric production is essential for its own energy security, as around 70% of the country regularly faces electricity shortages. Meanwhile, Uzbekistan contends that the dam would severely harm their agricultural system (Bologov, 2016).
In the past, tensions over the Rogun Dam have resulted in disruptions to economic activity and trade relations between the two countries. Transport, for example, faced disruptions as railway connections and direct flights between Dushanbe and Tashkent were suspended due to the dispute (Mirimanova et al., 2018).
It has also been suggested that tensions over the project have the potential to induce a full state-on-state war within the context of international water conflicts (Central Eurasia Standard, 2013). In 2012, former President of Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov, referred to the prospect of war should the construction of the Rogun Dam proceed (Garcés de los Fayos, 2014).
Against this backdrop, climate change will exasperate tensions further by reducing the overall water supply in the region. In particular, changes in temperature, rainfall and snow melt regimes could impact river run-off and water availability, while floods and other climate-related hazards could destroy livelihoods and infrastructure. A case in point is the floods in 1993 which damaged infrastructure connected to the Rogun Dam’s construction (ENVSEC, 2017). Such events could increase in frequency and intensity as precipitation extremes are projected to rise over many parts of Central Asia (IPCC, 2021).
The economic situation
In economic terms, one of Uzbekistan’s most important sectors is cotton, accounting for USD 1.3 billion or around 13% of total export value in 2019 (Chatham House, 2021). The sector is also vital for employment – cotton picking alone employed around 12.9% of the population aged 18-50 years in 2020 (ILO, 2021).
Cotton production is, however, a water-intensive industry requiring frequent irrigation in a region already experiencing increasing demands for water, intensified by the pressures of climate change (Garcés de los Fayos, 2014). Uzbekistan fears the completion of the dam will threaten this primary export and pose dangerous socio-economic and environmental risks pertaining to the ecological imbalance of water within the area. Although public opinion is difficult to assess, there have been numerous demonstrations against the project and vociferous debates online via social media (Sodiqov, 2012).
At the same time, there are concerns relating to water management in Uzbekistan, due to inefficient irrigation systems and poor drainage. Additionally, renewable water resources in Uzbekistan are extremely limited and only 10% of the nation’s total river run-off, meaning water entering the hydrological network, is formed within the country (Strickman & Porkka, 2008).
In energy-poor Tajikistan, important social consequences are also to be considered. During the cold Central Asian winter of 2007-2008, there was a significant loss of life and livestock due primarily to energy shortages (Libert et al., 2008). The electricity generated by the Rogun Dam would provide a secure and sustainable flow of cheap energy aiding this chronic energy shortage, thus assisting Tajikistan’s economy – currently one of Central Asia’s weakest (Bologov, 2016).
The economic trade-offs relate in considerable parts to the Rogun dam's operation, and specifically the season when (most of) the water is released. Whereas Tajikistan has clear incentives to release the water during winter months when its energy needs are greatest, Uzbekistan needs the water released during the hot summer months so as to enable irrigation.
The political situation
On a political level, the root cause of the conflict is complex. The region was previously managed as part of the USSR. The Soviets established a system of dams on the two principle rivers, Amu Darya and Syr Darya, designed to allow states upstream to store water before releasing their reserves during times of irrigation. After the disintegration of the USSR, analysts feared these arrangements would collapse. In February 1992, this belief was dispelled, as five Central Asian republics, including Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, signed an agreement to continue Soviet water sharing practices, thus creating the Interstate Commission for Water Coordination (ICWC). This agreement, however, only allowed the ICWC to coordinate water allocations and did not require provisions of energy supplies to the upstream states. A separate agreement was reached in 1998 by the Central Asian states, in which Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan paid for irrigation and electricity, while Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan used the revenues to pay for energy during the winter season when needs are highest. This agreement broke down in 2002, as Kyrgyzstan demanded higher electricity prices in order to cover the rising costs of oil and gas (Weil, 2012). Against this backdrop, disagreements over the Rogun Dam have emerged.
The World Bank has assisted two studies assessing the viability of the Rogun Dam project, in response to a request from the government of Tajikistan. The Techno-Economic Assessment Study (TEAS) and the Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) were overseen by international consultant firms and financed through an International Development Association (IDA) project in collaboration with experts from the World Bank (World Bank, 2014). The panel of experts agreed to the feasibility to build and operate a dam at the proposed site, albeit with the incorporation of modifications to the original design and the establishment of a monitoring system throughout the dam’s lifetime (World Bank, 2014). In June 2014, the World Bank and government of Tajikistan released draft documents of these assessments.
Uzbek officials, however, have expressed strong dissatisfaction with the assessment and former Deputy Prime Minister Rustam Azimov personally stated that the World Bank’s reports do not meet internationally recognised standards of transparency, objectivity and impartiality. Although Uzbekistan accepted the World Bank’s undertaking of the TEAS and ESIA assessments, former president Karimov united popular opinion in Uzbekistan against the project (Central Eurasia Standard, 2013).
Potential next steps
In terms of a political resolution to the conflict, the first step should be to diffuse and depoliticise the debate between the leaders of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. The Rogun Dam has become an important political symbol linked directly to the legitimacy of the political regimes in both countries.
However, since the change of leadership in 2016, there has been some progress in terms of bilateral relations. Economic ties have since improved, and Uzbekistan’s leaders have been less vehemently opposed to the dam’s construction (Hammond, 2018). During a visit by Karimov’s successor Shavkat Mirziyoyev in Dushanbe in 2021, both countries agreed to jointly build two hydroelectric plants on the Tajik side of the Zarafshan river. However, the Rogun dispute was not discussed, indicating that opposition to the dam might still be lingering within Uzbekistan’s political circles (Hashimova, 2021).
The conflict is thus currently unresolved and the Rogun Dam remains under construction, with completion set for 2028 (Putz, 2018). Looking back, the previous water-sharing agreements of the USSR could still serve as a model for understanding how Tajikistan and Uzbekistan could arrive at a solution which is mutually beneficial, although a scenario similar to this remains a distant prospect (Weil, 2012).
Resilience and Peace Building
Water cooperation between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan is crucial in order to solve the challenges of water management and arrive at a solution which is mutually beneficial.
Improving actionable information
In response to a request from the government of Tajikistan, the World Bank conducted a Techno-Economic Assessment Study (TEAS) and an Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) assessing the viability of the Rogun Dam project. However, the results of the assessments were not accepted as valid by Uzbekistan.
Resources and Materials
- Bologov, P. (2016). The Rogun Dam: A Source of Division in Central Asia. Carnegie Moscow Center. [Access date: 20.12.2022].
- Central Eurasia Standard (2013). The Rogun Dam: Regional Conflict and Opportunity.
- Chatham House (2021). Uzbekistan, resourcetrade.earth. [Access date: 12.01.2022].
- ENVSEC (2017). Climate Change and Security in Central Asia. The Republic of Kazakhstan, The Kyrgyz Republic, The Republic of Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and the Republic of Uzbekistan. Regional Assessment. OSCE.
- Eshchanov, B.R. et al. (2011). Rogun Dam – Path to Energy Independence or Security Threat? Sustainability, 3(9), 1573-1592.
- Garcés de los Fayos, F. (2014). The World Bank Considers Feasible the Building of the Tajik Rogun Dam. Brussels: Directorate-General for External Policies, Policy Department, European Union.
- Hammond, J. (2018). Uzbekistan and Tajikistan: No more dam problems? The Defense Post. [Access date: 20.12.2022].
- Hashimova, U. (2021). Uzbekistan and Tajikistan Talk Dams, Not Rogun. The Diplomat. [Access date: 20.12.2022].
- ILO (2021). 2020 third-party monitoring of child labour and forced labour during the cotton harvest in Uzbekistan. Geneva: ILO.
- IPCC (2021). Regional fact sheet - Asia. IPCC Sixth Assessment Report.
- Libert, B. et al. (2008). Water and Energy Crisis in Central Asia. China and Eurasia Forum Quarterly, 6(3).
- Mirimanova, N. et al. (2018). Central Asia. Climate-related security risk assessment. Expert Working Group on Climate-related Security Risks.
- Putz, C. (2018). Tajikistan’S Rogun Dam Begins Operations. The Diplomat. [Access date: 20.12.2022].
- Sodiqov, A. (2012). The Rogun Dam Controversy: Is Compromise Possible? Central Asia-Caucasus Institute Analyst. [Access date: 20.12.2022].
- Strickman, R. & Porkka, M. (2008). Water & Social Changes in Central Asia: Problems Related to Cotton Production in Uzbekistan. In: Rahaman & Varis (eds.). Central Asian Waters. Espoo: Water & Development Publications – Helsinki University of Technology.
- Weil, S. (2012). Tit-for-Tat: The Evolution of Non-Cooperation over the Rogun Dam. CSIS.
- World Bank (2014). Fifth and Final Riparian Meetings on Rogun Assessment Studies. Press Release. [Access date: 20.12.2022].