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Villagers in Tajikistan rely heavily on coal to heat their homes in winter. Shown here is a coal mine in the country’s Fan Mountains. (Negar Elodie Behzadi)

Winter Rations Prompt Coal Use in Hydropower-Rich Tajikistan

Dushanbe, Tajikistan—Aly-Jon, a taxi driver here in Dushanbe,  has three televisions in the house he shares with his family and parents. But to warm the house in winter, he estimates that his family burns more than 500 pounds of coal.

The reason stems from Tajikistan’s dependence on hydropower for electricity. In the summer, Tajikistan’s rivers produce excess power. In the winter, rivers slow and freeze, causing water levels at dams to plummet and hydropower generation to dwindle. At the same time, general demand for electricity – for heat – rises. To conserve energy, the state-owned utility company rations electricity. And Aly-Jon and his family resort to burning coal in their stove.

Tajikistan’s rivers could provide enough energy to meet more than three times the current energy demand of all of Central Asia, according to government statistics. Realizing that potential, though, is a matter of development and time. For now, there is not enough energy to power homes through the winter, and families must find alternative sources of heat.

Rationing usually begins in October and can last through May, depending on the severity of the winter. The more remote the village, the more severe the rationing. A village a few hours drive from Dushanbe might only have electricity for two or three hours in the morning and evening.

To keep warm, villagers turn to their stoves. Aly-Jon’s estimates of his family’s coal consumption are probably on the low-end for the country. On average, a household in a village in the Romit Valley, just north of Dushanbe, burned more than a metric ton (or 2,200 pounds) of coal and 19 cubic feet of wood over the course of a winter plus another 27 kilograms of liquid gas and 7,500 pieces of cow dung, says Jamshed Kodirkulov, a project manager for the United Nations Development Programme’s energy and environment work in Tajikistan. He cites data from a UNDP-funded study conducted by the Tajik Academy of Sciences.

Burning these fuels has hazards. In December, carbon monoxide from a stove killed five family members. Coal especially contributes to pollution, and cutting down trees for use as firewood drives erosion. Tajikistan’s bare, deforested mountainsides not only make for poor agricultural production but also are the cause of disruptive (and deadly) avalanches and landslides.

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A coal mine in Tajikistan’s Fan Mountains, shown here, contributes to production of an energy source used by many villagers to heat homes in winter. (Negar Elodie Behzadi)

To solve Tajikistan’s winter energy shortages, the government and private sector, as well as various international organizations, are trying to boost hydropower production. Plans for large-scale projects such as CASA-1000, which would allow Tajikistan to sell summer surplus energy to Pakistan, and the Rogun Dam, which has achieved mythical stature here for its potential and nearly endless delays, offer a glimpse of a future in which Tajikistan has enough energy to meet winter needs and increase energy exports.

But hydropower development involving new, large dams carries risks.

“Hydropower development has a troubled history,” Gulio Boccaletti, managing director of global water at The Nature Conservancy, noted in an opinion piece in the Guardian. “Relocation of people to make room for reservoirs, downstream environmental impacts from the fragmenting of rivers, and the profound modification of aquatic ecosystem – all drive legitimate concerns about the development of this type of infrastructure.” Boccaletti says NGOs must work with hydropower businesses. The Nature Conservancy and other members of the Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Forum are developing proposals to help policy makers develop hydropower more responsibly.

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Tajikistan has a vast network or lakes and rivers, such as the Haft Ku or Seven Lakes as shown here, that can be used to develop hydropower. (Joe Schottenfeld)

Massive dams also take time. Initial construction on the Rogun Dam project began decades ago, well before the end of the Soviet Union. In the interim, UNDP’s Kodirkulov advocates for building small-scale hydropower plants. He and his team have worked with two Tajik manufacturers to make turbines currently capable of generating around 100 kilowatt hours.  While not cost effective enough to replace stoves for heating and cooking, the turbines could allow isolated communities to power a school or hospital and give homes consistent access to electricity for lights and appliances.

For at least the next few winters, however, Aly-Jon and others around the country will need to continue filling their stoves at night.

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Because of energy rationing in winter, people in Tajikistan heat their homes by burning coal in a a pichka, the traditional cast iron stove. (Joe Schottenfeld)