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Afghanistan and Cold Winters in Tajikistan

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Every winter, power shortages in Tajikistan cause lights to go out and electric heaters to go cold in rural homes across the country. The shortages have become a yearly routine, and the electricity rationing that results a significant burden for Tajik villagers. Now, one of the most viable routes to solving Tajikistan's power problem may run through--or falter in--Afghanistan.

In late March, executive directors of the World Bank voted to provide more than half a billion dollars to build power lines connecting Tajik and Kyrgyz hydroelectric sources to Pakistan. Under the plan, called the Central Asia-South Asia Electricity Transmission and Trade Project (CASA-1000), Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan would provide more than 1000 megawatts of power to Pakistan in the summer, which would help offset Pakistan's heat-related power shortages. Afghanistan would receive an additional 300 megawatts of power. After paying off the loans necessary for the project, the money that Tajikistan would be paid for this power could be used to solve winter energy shortages.

For the government of Tajikistan, CASA-1000 possibly represents a means of beginning to fix the cruel ritual generated by its hydroelectric power. In the summer, Tajikistan is flush with power. Running freely, thunderous rivers flowing from the country's high mountain peaks generate the tenth highest hydroelectric power potential in the world, according to a paper published by the Carnegie institute. But, in the winter, frozen rivers constrict hydroelectric output: Just when demand for electric heat rises, Tajikistan cannot produce enough to fulfill even its own needs.

Every year, as early as October, the state-owned utility company, Barqi Tojik (Tajik Electric), begins to ration power--normally 10 to 12 hours a day, split between mornings and evenings. The shortages last through March or early April. For affected villagers--shortages are most pronounced in rural areas--the lack of power turns winter into a monumental, if personal struggle for warmth, one that begins well before winter starts. Unable to use electric heaters, villagers rely on rudimentary wood- or dung-burning stoves. The mountainous terrain of much of the country, the source of its hydroelectric potential, makes wood scarce, and villagers must begin gathering kindling in the early summer.

This past winter, extreme cold further limited Tajikistan's energy supply. In late March, coinciding with decision of the World Bank's directors to fund CASA-1000, Barqi Tojik cut electricity to 30 minutes or an hour a day for nearly a week in homes across much of the country.

Power shortages also cause broader problems. As Sharif Rahimzoda, Tajikistan's Minister of Economic Development and Trade, acknowledged last week in an interview with Eurasianet, "Investors do not come because during winter we cannot provide electricity. They cannot run production year-round." Few business plans are elastic enough to accommodate a six- or seven-month lull in production.

By selling excess summer power through CASA-1000, Tajikistan could begin to address its energy imbalance, which is only expected to worsen as demand in the country increases. Revenue from the project would allow the country to develop alternative energy sources for use in the winter; stockpiling oil and gas could serve as a short-term alleviator of energy rationing. Direct grant funding from CASA-1000 might even enable Tajikistan to expand its hydropower production, including in the winter, although disputes with Uzbekistan over water rights will add to the difficulty of achieving this.

But CASA-1000 will work only if the new electrical lines can reach Pakistan--only if Afghanistan can become what the project calls a "viable transit country" connecting Central Asia to South Asia. Of the money pledged by the World Bank, more than half--US316 million--will be dedicated to Afghanistan. Linking Tajikistan and Pakistan requires 750 kilometers of new power lines, nearly all of which would pass through Afghanistan. It will also require Afghanistan to maintain, at the very least, the stability necessary to erect power lines and to protect expensive infrastructure.

That prospect remains in question, and, despite the World Bank's decision, CASA-1000 is still not fully funded. In June 2013, the Asian Development Bank, which had earlier pledged to fund nearly 40% of CASA-1000 - around $US400 million - withdrew its support over concerns of mounting instability in Afghanistan. For the remainder of the funding, the World Bank, Tajikistan, and the other countries involved must look to other development banks, like the Islamic Development Bank, which will need to be satisfied that conditions in Afghanistan will remain secure enough for this vast project to succeed.

Along much of the Afghan-Tajik border, all that separates the two countries is a thin, powerful river--the Panj. From the northern, Tajik side, the happenings across the river--as Afghanistan wobbles through its elections and toward a post-Karzai future, the U.S. continues a rapid drawdown of forces, and a bilateral security agreement guaranteeing a stabilizing U.S. presence remains unsigned--are a source of deep concern. The threat of the spillover of violence and instability remains constant and imminent. It need not cross the Panj to have considerable effect on Tajikistan--and to keep CASA-1000 from happening.