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Reporting Central Asia
Central Asia home

Cold Snap Wreaks Havoc on Central Asian Power

Russian

Ageing electricity networks have been pushed to the limits by this winter’s prolonged sub-zero temperatures.

By Jyldyz Mamytova in Bishkek and Yaroslav Razumov in Almaty (RCA No. 529, 31-Jan-08)

The worst winter in decades has hit Central Asia with one of the worst energy crises in memory, forcing factories to close and leaving people shivering in the darkness.

Abnormally low seasonal temperatures, plunging to 30 or 40 degrees below zero, have pushed electric consumption to a record high.

In Kyrgyzstan, a state rich in hydroelectric power, daily consumption is ten per cent higher than it normally would be at this time of year. The jump in use caused water levels in the main reservoir at Toktogul to fall alarmingly as the turbines were kept running in an effort to keep up with demand.

In Tajikistan, which suffers from annual winter energy crises despite its substantial hydroelectric generating capacity, savage power cuts have inflicted severe damage on industrial output and raised questions about the competence of the political leadership.

Even energy-rich Kazakstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have experienced power cuts as sharply-rising domestic consumption overwhelms capacity.

An observer in the Balkan region of western Turkmenistan described the energy crisis in schools and hospitals as critical.

“The worst situation is in the schools,” said this source. “All the local schools have had their boilers cut off, and as a result most teachers hold classes for only 15 minutes and then let the children go.” Vadim, a businessman in Kazakstan whose scrap-metal recycling firm relies on electrical power, says the cuts have inflicted major damage on his company.

“The smelting process uses up a lot of electricity,” he explained. “Now we are suffering big losses and experiencing technological problems.”

Energy industry experts say the Kyrgyz electricity grid had failed a crucial test as a result of the abnormal cold.

Almaz Abdrahmanov, a resident of the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek, said that despite freezing daily temperatures of around 20 below zero, the new residential district of Archa-Beshik had been without power for three days.

The electricity shortages come as consumers across the region faces problems with supply of natural gas, again as a consequence of the harsh winter conditions. Major producer Uzbekistan is struggling to cope with increased demand at home and curtailing exports to its neighbours. (See IWPR reports on this: Uzbekistan Sees Rare Protests Over Gas Shortage and Sparks Fly as Tajiks Endure Power Cuts, RCA No. 528, 25-Jan-08; and Tajiks Pull the Plug on Cafés, RCA No. 529, 01-Feb-08.)

In Kazakstan, Petr Svoik, an economist and former minister who once ran a power station, says even this energy-rich country cannot cope with the current high rates of demand. The crisis, he says, has highlighted the failure to carry out long-overdue repair work to cables and power plants.

Experts note that the country is capable of producing a maximum of 70 billion kilowatts per hour, not enough to for crisis situations such as the recent hard winter.

However, given the continuing lack of investment in the system, an immediate increase in electricity production looks unlikely.

“A unified energy system for the whole of Kazakstan has not yet been created,” Svoik said. “In practice, it consists of a number of regional energy ‘enclaves’.”

Svoik said relatively little was being done to modernise the power grid. “The authorities have not yet decided which facilities to build first, and when it comes to what to build and who will supply the money, there’s been an absolute failure,” he said.

While Kazakstan’s electricity industry has received some investment over the last four years, experts say about 70 per cent of the system remains unfit for purpose.

“If immediate and resolute measures are not taken to renovate energy facilities, the power supply system will inevitably collapse, and this will have many negative social and economic consequences,” said Alexander Trofimov, head of Kazselenergoproekt, which works on electricity projects for rural areas of Kazakstan.

In Kyrgyzstan, besides fundamental problems with generating capacity, there is the additional and widespread problem of illegal diversion of power supplies, which goes on largely undetected and leads to large revenue losses.

Gulya Muratalieva, spokesman for the Severelektro power company in Bishkek, says most of the theft appears to occur in Bishkek, a city that is home to more than a million people.

“It’s difficult to calculate how many customers Severelektro serves in the capital today, since no one knows what the real population of Bishkek is,” Muratalieva told IWPR. “People connect cables to transmission lines without permission and so use up energy without it being recorded on a meter.”

The capital is also inefficient in its use of electricity. Most people use homemade heaters in their apartments that consume about five times more power than modern factory-produced heaters.

Another problem is that the meters are worn-out and inaccurate. Most of Severelektro’s customers have old meters that often act up in the extreme cold and fail to record consumption accurately.

But as one Bishkek resident told IWPR, few people worry about stealing electricity when their homes are freezing.

He and his family were forced to move into a hotel for several days when it became intolerable to remain in their cold home.

“Our area has no central heating or gas heating,” he said. “There are no coal-fired stoves in the houses, either – the rooms are heated with electricity and we cook on electric stoves, too,” he explained.

“When the power is cut, we practically freeze and go hungry.”

Jyldyz Mamytova and Yaroslav Razumov are IWPR contributors in Bishkek and Almaty, respectively.


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