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Flowing Down the Mountains

Tajikistan's hydropower plants and the changing climate

By Faith Harron

Stepping off the plane in Khorog, Tajikistan, it is the first thing you see: the river. The last hour and fifteen minutes you’ve watched it, following its winding course from a tiny, shaking, Soviet-era airplane. This river marks the border between Tajkistan and Afghanistan, winding like a divusk, the Shugni word for snake. A little-known country below Kazakhstan and west of China, Tajikistan has an abundance of water, flowing from sources like the Pyanj river. From natural hot springs to waterfalls and streams dotting the mountains like small white ribbons, the region’s people depend on this water – coming from snowmelt running off mountains – because rain rarely falls.

When Tajikistan was a Soviet satellite state, the water in Khorog and its province, Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO), was valued for little more than its beauty. Infrastructure – roads, buildings, electricity were provided by the state.

‘Living with the Soviet Union, it was a planned economy and according to plan, all living must be on one equal stage’, said Special Projects Manager of Pamir Energy, Ofarid Amidkhonov. ‘In terms of economics, there was more or less satisfaction, but it made us lazy […] because we were mostly subsidised for the diesel, for the energy’.

After the fall of the USSR in 1991, a five year civil war tore apart the country. Infrastructure suffered – especially electricity – as the Soviet state stopped supplying diesel. To fight for the households left in the dark, Pamir Energy was founded. In 2002 operations began, but initially the company struggled to achieve any success. The country and the community are incredibly complex and difficult to navigate. Pamir Energy bid goodbye to four CEOs in their first five years of operation. The fifth, Daler Jumaev, stayed.

But it has still not been easy for him or the company. At the beginning Jumaev had to knock on door after door in Khorog telling people that they now must pay for electricity. What was once state-funded had become a capitalist commodity.

‘Most didn’t believe him’, remembered entrepreneur Iqbal Talib. Jumaev had to convince them.

Much has changed since then. Diesel’s age is long gone; now is the era of water. Pamir I, named for the rocky mountains that give this region the nickname ‘Roof of the World’, is Pamir Energy’s main generating plant. Eleven other ‘mini’ hydropower plants (HPPs) helped the total installed capacity of Pamir Energy to reach 44.1 megawatts in 2017.

Jakub Polansky, working on his master’s thesis in the region, has visited the Khorog HPP. There, he was ‘deeply impressed’ by how Pamir Energy had effectively reutilised Soviet-era resources. He believes these plants are among the most technologically advanced places in Tajikistan.

‘The strict adherence to modern engineering and safety standards can serve as an example for the construction and operation of further HPPs in Tajikistan and beyond’, he said.

Today, the numbers show that Pamir Energy’s hard work has paid off. In 2002, only 13% of the region’s households received 12 hours of electricity per day. In 2017, 96% of all households have 24/7 electricity. The transmission and distribution network, too, has seen significant changes. In 2006, transmission line losses accounted for 39% of electricity usage, but a decade later they have dropped to just 12%.

Many have noted Pamir’s successes and expansion, including the highest religious leader of the Ismaili Muslim faith.

‘Ensuring sustained social and economic gains often requires working across frontiers’, said His Highness the Aga Khan in 2016. ‘One promising example is Pamir Energy […] Since 2008, it has exported electricity across the [Tajikistan] border, reaching nearly 35,000 Afghans, and much more is possible’.

‘We do treat Pamir Energy not just as a company, but as a model to bring power to rural areas in Central Asia’, Jumaev said. ‘We say, we think this is a model we can replicate […] but there’s not a copy-paste solution. Every region has its own peculiarity’.

For Jumaev and others at Pamir Energy, the goal is to make the lives of people, wherever they might be, ‘transformative’.

And the stories of change and transformation are compelling. The Bashor Case Study asked recently electrified community members of the Afghan Badakhshan region about their experiences. It found gaining electricity has given local women an extra four hours, every day, to spend with their family or working.

The study even cites a principal of the local girls’ school, who said the girls come to school dressed more neatly and cleanly, a result of learning about hygiene through TV programs and having access to heated water. Previously, without heating and light, many schools, businesses, and even health centres were forced to shutter once light faded; in the winter the cold forced even earlier closing times. Afghan Bashor residents say stores stay open 20% longer on average after gaining access to Pamir Energy’s hydropower reserves, contributing to economic growth.

Schools are also able to ‘plug in’ and use more technology.

‘Schools may utilise electronic devices in their curriculum to […] modernise their teaching methods to be more interactive [like] use of PCs, science experiments using electric microscopes, English classes with audio and video recordings’, Polansky added.

Perhaps the most important: life-saving electricity is the power provided to hospitals. In Bashor, doctors can use a program called eHealth to consult with Khorog specialists, increasing the quality of provincial medical care.

‘Just think of running a hospital without electricity’, Polansky said. ‘Cooling of vaccines, performing surgeries with candle light, [or] performing diagnostics without any electronic devices’.

Achieving these successes has required thinking in new ways about the region’s problems. Intern Khurram Ali believes that being the first private-public partnership in the country has significantly helped. They can adopt the best practices in different sectors more readily, and make additional important financial considerations, like a business would. As a partially public company, there is additionally a focus on the environmental aspects of the firm’s work.

‘We want to bring the sustainable energy but bring at prices the people can use’, Jumaev said. ‘Today it has pulled up quality of life, there’s a higher purchasing power, but also as a company we’re always trying to help improve the service’.

Sustainability, a global community buzzword over the last decade, is something Pamir Energy considers as well. The company has reduced emissions in the area by 300,000 tons of CO2, but Pamir Energy is actively pursuing their next goal: implementing an energy conservation program among their customers. It’s an idea that might require Jumaev to knock on doors again, as Khorog does not currently concern itself greatly with energy conservation.

‘The other year someone called me in the fall and said, “There’s lot of smog in Khorog”’, Jumaev said. ‘And this was because instead of picking up the leaves, the people were burning them.’

Although still problematic, this is an issue upon which Pamir’s power has already significantly impacted.

‘Before gaining access to electricity, people were forced to collect shrub and firewood for cooking and heating, which negatively impacted the environment – not only through the emission of CO2, but also through the degradation of the land through deforestation’, said Polansky. ‘In turn, [this] led to the destruction of the unique flora and fauna of the Pamirs, and to a higher incidence of mud- and rockslides’.

Approximately 70% of the region’s forests were decimated in under a decade, and respiratory problems sharply increased due to smoke inhalation, he adds.

The company also keenly applies their sustainability ethic when designing their HPPs. All their plants are run-of-the-river. In other parts of the world, this isn’t as common: dams dominate the hydropower field – think Hoover Dam in the US or China’s Three Gorges Dam. Run-of-the-river dams minimise harmful environmental impacts because they do not require a dam and extensive flooding zones for a reservoir. But there are still consequences.

‘We build around the low water flow for winter’, Jumaev said. ‘In order to make that winter supply demand, we have a lake of 300 million cubic meters and we release half the water in winter. It does have an impact on fish and farmers. We mitigate these risks – we’re creating new pastures for the farmers to become self-sustainable again, and we have fish fences […] with the international development agencies their standards are strict […] we comply’.

Geology and seismicity are considerations for HPPs anywhere in the world, and GBAO’s natural disasters do complicate Pamir Energy’s challenge. Jumaev remembers when a mudflow blocked part of the river, and it took 30 minutes for the Pyanj to find its way over. But once that happened, he says it looked like a tsunami rushing towards them.

‘Any power plant [Pamir Energy] builds is based on 40-year historical data’, Jumaev said, that data being water levels and hydrogeology among other factors. ‘But Tajikistan is in the top five countries most vulnerable to climate change. There are years we don’t get enough water, both the rivers and the lake that feeds them […] the glaciers are shrinking and the warmer weather doesn’t allow winter snow to become ice. And we see floodings that could and do cause damage to power plants, as well as mudflows and landslides’.

In 2015, flooding significantly damaged four small HPPs and two major plants.

‘We had designed these based on 100-year flood events, but this 2015 event was treated as a 1000-year flooding event’, Jumaev said. ‘So we revisit the infrastructure to make it be robust for the 1000 year flooding events too’.

After 2015, when 90% of the generating capacity was threatened, multiple plants on a river are no longer viewed as a viable strategy.

‘We recovered [from 2015] but we saw danger’, Jumaev says. ‘We didn’t forget – we changed strategy. Now, we are adding different valleys, adding redundancy in the system’.

Earthquakes present another challenge. About 3600 a year strike this region, Jumaev says.

‘Any of our utilities are resistant to nine scales of Richter, because we’re in the 8-9 zone [for earthquakes]. Our job is from an engineering point of view that these HPPs are robust enough. It’s a high-risk zone […] but you have systems to manage that risk’.

Most near future renewable energy projects worldwide will be hydroelectric, particularly in developing countries like Tajikistan, the U.S. Energy Information Administration predicts. Yet as Pamir Energy well knows, building a plant is a project with many considerations that will have to shift as the climate does – and not necessarily in a way that benefits the plants.

Still, looking forward, Pamir Energy is dedicated to reaching new communities, especially in the remotest places. Their biggest project is Sebzor, a HPP designed to increase electricity coverage of Afghan Badakhshan from 4% to almost 50% by 2020. In Murgob, home of yaks at 3650 m, Aksu power plant, with 1.5 MW capacity, has just been completed.

‘We see the bigger picture and our place in it’, Jumaev says. ‘We look at demand. Where is the demand? We look at eastern Tajikistan and northern Afghanistan. They’re geographically close, so why not? And northern Pakistan too. Our goal is to bring the light and warmth to everyone’s home in the region’.

Illustrations by Megan Rose Jones and Isabel Galwey

Faith Harron majors in mechanical engineering at Stanford University. She loves learning languages, writing of all kinds, and running at night under the stars.


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