[The Nurek Dam in Tajikistan forms this massive 10.5 km³ reservoir. Photo by Carolyn Drake for The New York Times.]

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, many freshly independent Central Asian countries such as Tajikistan, were dealt either a strong or poor hand with regard to land resources. Reading in the NYTimes on Sunday, Tajikistan hopes an abundance of water will leverage its lingering economic woes. The Tajiks were dealt few exploitable resources, i.e. oil / gas, but the productive combination of heavy winter precipitation and endless mountains, has produced a healthy abundance water. Throw in global warming, and you have a very full river. Along the Vakhsh River, Tajikistan, the Nurek Dam is an icon of 1960s Soviet infrastructure ingenuity. At 300 m (984 ft), the Nurek is the tallest Dam in the world. The massive reservoir fuels nine hydroelectric turbines producing 3.0 gigwatts, or 40% of Central Asia's power needs and 98% of Tajikistan's.

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[Interior of Nurek Dam ... or central control.]

Just up-river from Nurek is another dam project, Rogun, that has been in the works - and then stalled - for over 30 years. Rogun, the Sagrada Familia of dams is expected to reach 335m (1099 ft) when completed. In fact, Tajikistan pins its entire future on its ability to export power to neighboring energy poor countries such as Kazakstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Most affected downstream, Uzbekistan is unhappy with the Rogun project as it will disrupt water flow and therefore considerably effect an already fragile agriculture cycle.

[Irrigation infrastructure in Shartuz, where the cotton fields dried up in the early 1990s. Photo by Carolyn Drake for The New York Times.]

The Soviet-era balance of water usage meant partial stopping of the Tajik’s hydroelectric stations, the main source of energy during the winter season, to save water for the Uzbek irrigation season. This meant that Tajikistan bought much-needed energy and gas from Uzbekistan; this dynamic changed dramatically when Uzbekistan started raising prices, to the level of world prices, crippling the Tajiks and sending their energy debt soaring.

[The complex politics of water control in Central Asia. Map by UNEP.]

To compensate for this, the Tajik's sought energy independence through hydropower, which worked well. So well in fact that it is leveraging the exportability of its hydropower success against neighboring water poor states. This has now come back full circle as Tajikistan seeks to have water (hydropower) recognized as a tradable commodity, like the oil and gas it has had to purchase from Uzbekistan.

[A closer look at the politics of damming, runoff, and irrigation in the Ferghana Valley. Map by UNEP.]

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