Author: Dimitris Symeonidis, The Hague
On 25 January 2022, an unprecedented blackout spread across much of southern Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. This is not the first time that Central Asia has experienced power outages, which have increased alarmingly in Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. In neighbouring South Asia, Afghanistan and Pakistan have also been dealing with energy insecurity.
These power cuts come despite numerous interregional energy projects, such as the Turkmenistan–Uzbekistan–Tajikistan–Afghanistan–Pakistan (TUTAP) interconnection. There is rising interest in understanding and overcoming the main obstacles hindering the implementation of a strong and resilient energy grid in the region.
The Turkmenistan–Afghanistan–Pakistan–India (TAPI) pipeline promises to enhance regional energy security by transporting 33 billion cubic metres of gas, passing from Herat to Kandahar, Quetta and Multan. January 2022 brought good news for the pipeline, as Turkmen Deputy Foreign Minister Wafa Khadzhiev announced that his country’s part of the project will be finalised this year. But Turkmenistan had already claimed to have completed its part in 2019. Pakistan has also been postponing progress, allegedly waiting for stabilisation on the Afghan front.
The Central Asia–South Asia power project (CASA-1000) lies in the same category of unfinished projects. The interconnection project was designed to transmit the electricity surplus of hydropower plants in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to South Asia via a transmission line connecting Kyrgyzstan and Pakistan. The project has been under discussion since 2007 and officially started in 2016. But even though its target completion date is 2023, only 15 per cent of the lines had been finalised by October 2021 and construction works were indefinitely postponed due to instability in Afghanistan.
The common denominator of all these endeavours is the feet-dragging strategy of most participating nations as well as instability in Afghanistan. While the latter is a very complex issue, the stalling behaviour has a much simpler rationale.
The primary reason is financing. The cost for finalising TAPI is estimated at around US$10 billion, but so far the funds raised from the Islamic Development Bank and the Asian Development Bank barely exceed US$1 billion.
Another important issue is the energy infrastructure of the region. The Trans-Adriatic Pipeline and CASA-1000 will both introduce high-voltage direct current lines which will need updated transformers and energy management equipment. Both are currently unusable in Central and South Asian nations. There is fear that, even if the projects are completed, the lines will not have the promised impact on local communities.
The reason for the TUTAP interconnection’s failure to satisfy the region’s needs is climate change. Upstream Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are struggling due to increasing water stress on the Naryn and Amu Darya rivers, which reduces the power output of the hydroelectric power plant alongside them. In 2018, domestic energy production in Kyrgyzstan was 2.3 Mtoe (million tonnes of oil equivalent) to cover a needed consumption of 4.2 Mtoe, while Tajikistan had to import over 40 TJ (terajoules) of power.
Downstream, Pakistan’s energy supply of almost 4.5 million TJ outpaced its consumption of 3.75 million TJ, and current Pakistani energy units are working on conventional fuels which make them a more reliable energy provider in the interconnected grid. Even India, which had an energy deficit of 373 Mtoe in 2018, is expected to become a net exporter by 2035.
Environmental degradation was not taken into consideration when the interconnection was planned and the consequences are expected to be dire. If TUTAP was reorganised so that electricity flows from the south to the north of the grid, countries with an increasing energy surplus could provide upstream countries with much needed electricity during the winter.
The biggest obstacle remains finding funding to finalise the projects. Reassurances from Beijing that it will increase investment in the region, and from Moscow that it is ready to participate actively in the finalisation of TAPI, were encouraging, but must translate to tangible support. Considering India–China relations, the Kremlin might be a safer choice. But after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, its involvement might drive other players out of the investment. Moscow might also have difficulty finding funding to support the project. This is a geopolitical trade-off that Central and South Asian states ought to consider.
TUTAP must be rethought. An efficient approach would integrate renewables, potentially green hydrogen production, and provide water through desalination projects. This would remove the seasonality of hydropower and convert India and Pakistan into active guarantors of interregional energy security.
These ambitious plans, together with reforms in grid operators, will require significant funds and institutional and market reforms. It should be noted that developing alternative forms of energy will alter the existing picture of energy supply by decentralising production. Central and South Asian nations need to reconsider their cooperation framework and create a unified front in search of the funds and technical expertise to resolve their energy challenges.
Dimitris Symeonidis is an independent energy policy and geopolitical risk analyst based in The Hague.
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