Symbolic, but distant in the future: A dam on Kyrgyzstan’s Naryn river

The River Naryn running through the city of Naryn in Kyrgyzstan. Photo by Vlad Ushakov. Used with permission.

This article was written by Paolo Sorbello for An edited version is published on Global Voices under a media partnership agreement. 

First envisioned during the Soviet era, the Kambar-Ata-1 dam and a hydropower plant (HPP) on the Naryn river in Kyrgyzstan might finally be built, after Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan signed an agreement on April 15 establishing a joint company to start construction.

According to experts surveyed by Vlast, this massive project, which will add 40 percent to Kyrgyzstan’s existing hydropower generation rate, is likely to be completed later than the 15 years the parties envision. And it could cost more than the USD 5–6 billion that Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov forecast in one of his speeches in April.

Last year, Kyrgyzstan produced 13.8 billion kWh of electricity, according to the Kyrgyz Energy Settlement Center. Because of chronic shortages, Kyrgyzstan also had to import a total of 3.5 billion kWh, mostly from Kazakhstan, in 2023. With a projected capacity to generate 5.6 billion kWh, the Kambar-Ata-1 HPP could improve Kyrgyzstan’s energy security and allow for increased exports.

The long run

The Kambar-Ata-1 project was first planned during the late Soviet period, within the framework of water cooperation between upstream (Kyrgyzstan) and downstream (Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan) republics. After the countries gained independence in 1991, the project was shelved due to its high price tag.

The new trilateral agreement could spearhead construction and push the countries to obtain international financing in an effort to reach a milestone in regional energy security. The agreement sees Kazakhstan (33 percent), Kyrgyzstan (34 percent), and Uzbekistan (33 percent) co-owning the company responsible for the construction. The parties will maintain this corporate structure until construction work is complete, after which the ownership of the dam and HPP will pass on to Kyrgyzstan.

There will be long term implications for Kyrgyzstan’s energy security once the project is completed, according to Rahat Sabyrbekov, a visiting scholar at Harvard’s Davis Center and a researcher at the OSCE Academy in Bishkek, who focuses on energy transition and cooperation in Central Asia.

The dam at the Toktogul HPP on the Naryn river. Photo by Vlad Ushakov. Used with permission.

“Seasonality, outdated infrastructure, and lack of cooperation were the main reasons that a region rich in resources would experience energy deficits. Central Asian countries now came to the realization that they need each other not only in terms of water cooperation, but also in terms of energy security,” Sabyrbekov told Vlast.

A paradigm shift

For decades, after the fall of the Soviet Union, the chief naysayer to any new project that would change the equilibrium of water supplies in Central Asia was Uzbekistan’s first president, Islam Karimov.

“When Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan tried to build dams for smaller HPPs, Uzbekistan in retaliation cut off gas supplies. It was only after President Karimov died that Uzbekistan’s strategy towards water resources and energy cooperation changed. Now, on the contrary, [the current president Shavkat] Mirziyoyev promotes building joint power plants,” Sabyrbekov told Vlast in an interview.

In 2017, Mirziyoyev stated Uzbekistan’s willingness to build the Kambar-Ata-1 dam and HPP together with Kyrgyzstan.

Filippo Costa Buranelli, a senior lecturer at the University of St. Andrews focusing on regionalism in Central Asia, told Vlast that this was one of the first signs of cooperation among Central Asian states.

Filippo Menga, an associate professor at the University of Bergamo who focuses on water politics, urged caution, given the distance between signing an agreement and the implementation of a project. He noted that the agreement “is certainly surprising, considering how controversial large hydropower plants have been in the region since 1991.” The diplomatic work that the countries involved have put together, especially since 2016, seems to be paying off now.

“Kazakhstan has been quite active in water cooperation recently, for example co-organizing with the French government the One Water Summit on the sidelines of the next high-level session of the 79th UN General Assembly,” Menga said.

At once “surprising” because of the progress being made and “unsurprising” because of the small steps that preceded the agreement, the construction of the Kambar-Ata-1 dam and HPP can be considered a diplomatic coup for the three countries.

“From adversarial competition, we are moving towards mutually beneficial cooperation. And this agreement is proof that water diplomacy is now working in Central Asia,” Costa Buranelli explained Vlast.

Multilateralism and connections

In October last year, the World Bank approved the financing of a USD 5 million technical assistance package for the Kambar-Ata-1 project. Previously, it had already bet on electricity projects across Central Asia, the most notable of which is perhaps the ambitious CASA-1000 power line. Through this project Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan would provide electricity to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

CASA-1000 had been in the books for years, despite infrastructure issues in Tajikistan (with the sluggish construction of the Rogun HPP) and Kyrgyzstan (with seasonal electricity deficit), as well as doubts concerning Afghanistan, where the Taliban’s takeover in 2021 put the entire project to a halt. In February, the World Bank decided to resume funding for CASA-1000, breathing new life into a project that had struggled to find other private investors.

“The plans for Kambar-Ata-1 perfectly align with the CASA-1000 project. There has been a long criticism of the latter because there was not enough electricity to export,” Sabyrbekov told Vlast.

Given that CASA-1000 is poised to rely mostly on Tajikistan — which will provide 70 percent of the electricity, while Kyrgyzstan will provide the remaining 30 percent — the Kambar-Ata-1 HPP will not be enough to make it feasible.

“Tajikistan is building another large dam, Rogun, and if and when — and I stress if and when — these two dams are completed, the CASA-1000 project will finally make sense.” Menga told Vlast.

Here is a YouTube video about the ongoing construction of the Rogun HPP in Tajikistan.

Sabyrbekov is also skeptical regarding the timeline of the project. He forecasted that, most likely, “it will take much longer than scheduled” since “it is the first time that countries came together to build something.” “International financing is another issue, because the World Bank is not known for being on time with payments,” Sabyrbekov added.

Manufacturing ecosystems

Large-scale hydroelectric projects inevitably have an effect on the ecosystems and the societies living in the proximity of the water basins. According to Menga there could be a tension between the need to fill the prospective dam as soon as possible and the potential effect on the local population who rely on the flow of the Naryn river.

Timur Nusimbekov and Malika Autalipova, the founders of the multimedia project, have worked on the JerSu (Earth–Water) documentary project, visiting all the main water sources of Central Asia, including the Naryn river. They argued that the new power station could bring undeniable benefits in terms of energy security for the three countries, but warned of potential pitfalls.

They noted the necessity to strictly follow “all modern criteria and standards of technical and environmental safety” and take into account possible adverse consequences for the environment and the people in the region. In this regard, corruption is a worrisome element that could play against the proper completion of the project.

“The influence of corruption and incompetence can be no less destructive than fires, floods, and global warming,” Nusimbekov and Autalipova said.

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