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Kyrgyzstan: Will People Have Problems with Electricity?

Since last summer, Kyrgyzstan has seen talks of low water and forthcoming difficulties with energy supply to the people.  However, official representatives claim there is nothing to worry about.

Toktogul reservoir. Archive of CABAR.asia

In mid-summer 2020, ex-vice prime minister of Kyrgyzstan Bazarbai Mambetov said that the “government of Tajikistan took emergency measures to store water in Nurek reservoir in order to avoid blackouts in autumn and winter period” given the forecast about the forthcoming lack of water. Despite the already reached agreements, the neighbouring republic has stopped electricity supplies to Uzbekistan and Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the Kyrgyz government, Mambetov said, “does the opposite – it spends water of the Toktogul reservoir irresponsibly during the dry year.” By that time, Mambetov said, the Toktogul reservoir had had 2.3 billion cubic metres of water less than that last year – only 14 billion cubic metres. If Kyrgyzstan continues to supply water to neighbouring Kazakhstan for irrigation in the volume of 2 billion cubic metres, it will face the shortage of water in the Toktogul reservoir in the volume of 4.3 billion cubic metres by October 1. This is the volume that, according to Mambetov’s estimates, the republic will need for power generation by the chain of Toktogul power plants in autumn and winter period of 2020-2021.

Earlier, the energy expert Rasul Umbetaliev said that in late May 2020 the heads of the National Energy Holding and the State Committee of Industry, Energy and Subsoil Use (GKPEN) held separate talks with government officials of Kazakhstan and signed protocols of barter for the release of stored water to the neighbouring state during the growing season of 2020 (editorial comment: Rasul Umbetaliev was detained on November 4 by GKNB officers over the fact of extortion of 500,000 som (6 thousand dollars) from a bidder in a tender for the supply of bright coal. He had given the comment before the detention).

“Under agreement, we sell electricity to Kazakhstan at zero point one millionth of a dollar, it’s not even a cent, or a tyiyn,” Umbetaliev said with resentment. “If we count it, we are selling the whole batch of electricity at a price of one kebab skewer at an average café – 210 som (2.5 dollars). I know it’s all about our good neighbourhood, etc., but it shouldn’t be to the detriment of our country.”

According to Umbetaliev, both the government and the National Energy Holding have claimed that due to low water the Toktogul reservoir will store only 15 billion cubic metres of water, which is not enough for the autumn and winter period.

“Despite this fact, they supply water to Kazakhstan free of charge! If we spent water sparingly, we could accumulate over 17 billion cubic metres, which would be enough. I think it’s an economic crime. We run short of water, but still supply it to our neighbours! And then we buy it at 2.4 cents.”

“Over 1 billion cubic metres of water is used to export electricity, which will definitely affect the autumn-winter period of 2020-2021, when ordinary citizens might die not from coronavirus infection, but from cold,” the expert said.

The water flow rate from the Toktogul reservoir has increased up to 400 cubic metres per second since July 1. According to Umbetaliev’s estimates, this is more than twice the amount required for the country’s domestic energy consumption.

Tashkumyr hydropower station. Photo: CABAR.asia

Meanwhile, the National Energy Holding has confirmed that the agreement with Kazakhstan on the export of electricity was indeed signed at the price indicated by Umbetaliev. However, the then acting head of the department, Abdylda Israilov, said in an interview to CABAR.asia that it was not about the sale, but about the equivalent exchange of electricity. On September 21, Kazakhstan, he said, began to return it to Kyrgyzstan in the same amount – 300 million kilowatt hours.

“In order to execute a contract properly during the exchange, it is necessary to indicate a price, at least a conditional price, otherwise it would be impossible,” explained Israilov. “In fact, we receive as much as we have supplied. In the period when Kazakhstan returns electricity to us, we have a chance to accumulate water at the hydropower station, which we will need for the generation of electricity in winter. The same conditional price is indicated in the agreement for the return of electricity from Kazakhstan.”

However, the accumulated volume of water, according to Israilov, will still not be enough to provide the republic with electricity this winter. He said that since summer, the executives of the sector have negotiated with Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan on the import of more than 1 billion kilowatt hours.

“We have already signed the protocol on the import of 500 million kilowatt hours from Kazakhstan at a price of 2.4 cents,” Israilov said. “It’s only them who have the capacity to supply electricity in winter.”

Talks on the supply of another 600 million kilowatt hours in the first quarter of 2021 with Kazakhstan, according to Israilov, are still in progress because the price of the second supply is still unknown. According to Israilov, the neighbouring republic revises prices for electricity export every year, so it is still unknown how much the requested volume will cost Kyrgyzstan next year. When asked whether the price of 2.4 cents is lower than the market price, Israilov said that it is lower than the price of electricity sold by Kazakhstan to other republics.

Unpredictable nature or a factor that can be blamed for everything

At the end of April, the head of the Cabinet of Ministers Mukhammedkaly Abylgaziev (resigned in June) announced the forecasts of experts about the lack of water and that by autumn the volume of water in the Toktogul reservoir will not exceed 15 billion 600 million cubic metres, which is 2 billion cubic metres less than in the same period of 2019. Prime Minister announced the need to stock up on both imported and local coal, fuel oil, gas, as well as to shift to the energy-saving mode.

A year earlier, First Vice Prime Minister Kubatbek Boronov announced the beginning of a low water cycle in the country. The planned volume of water accumulation by the autumn of 2019, according to the official, is 17 billion cubic metres of water, which is 2 billion cubic metres less than in 2018. Then Boronov warned of the decrease in water inflow over the next three to five years.

River Naryn that feeds the Toktogul reservoir. Archive of CABAR.asia

Meanwhile, the Kyrgyzgidromet [Hydrometeorology Agency of Kyrgyzstan] denied the words of officials about the lack of water in Kyrgyzstan in the last two years. According to Elvira Akunova, the head of the department of hydrological forecasts of the Kyrgyzgidromet of the Emergency Ministry of the Kyrgyz Republic, the lack of water was forecasted only on the rivers of the Syrdarya basin in the south of the republic. They have nothing to do with electricity generation in the country.

“The inflow last year was 98 per cent of the long-term average value, 590 cubic metres per second against the standard rate of 604 cubic metres per second,” said Akunova. “We did not forecast low water levels in the Naryn basin either this year, or last year. And our forecast scored 100 per cent. We forecasted the inflow at 480 to 680 cubic metres per second in the growing season back in April. What affects the inflow? This June and July were a little cold in our country, and the inflow was slightly below the standard. But in August and September the weather became normal, the inflow became above the standard and it covered the shortage of the first two summer months.”

And the reports of “the beginning of a low-water season” and, moreover, the forecast for the next 3-5 years do not have any scientific basis, according to Akunova.

 “The forecast is made based on precipitation accumulation during the cold period only for 6 months ahead,” said Akunova. “The main forecast for the growing season comes out in early April, based on precipitation from October to March. And the maximum long-term meteorological forecast is made for one month in advance. For example, we do not know what winter will be like, how hot or cold the summer will be, what the melting of glaciers depends on, and how much precipitation will fall for one year ahead. We cannot make such a forecast. There is no such thing in the global practice. Ultra-long-term forecasts are some kind of provisional ensemble models, assumptions, but you cannot rely on them at all, they are very unreliable,” the expert concluded.

This was also reported by the power engineers, who did not reveal any clear pattern in the water inflow during the observation period since the beginning of the last century. “Due to the lack of accurate forecasts on water content, it is not possible to make water-energy calculations even in the medium term,” according to the ministry.

Where does the water flow?

As of October 1, 2018, the amount of water in the Toktogul reservoir reached its rated capacity – over 19 billion 300 million cubic metres of water. One year later, this figure was 17 billion 200 million cubic metres. This year, it is 15 billion 200 million cubic metres. According to the Hydrometeorology Agency of Kyrgyzstan, in April 2020, at the beginning of the growing season, the water storage in the reservoir was about 11 billion cubic metres. The expected inflow varied from 7 to 10 billion cubic metres of water. According to minimal estimates, by October the reservoir must have accumulated about 18 billion cubic metres of water, i.e. almost 3 billion more than was accumulated in fact. This volume just before winter, according to Umbetaliev, will have impact on the following winter season.

“In winter, we use 8-9 billion cubic metres of water,” said Umbetaliev. “As of April 1, the Toktogul reservoir will have about 8-9 billion cubic metres. By October 1 next year, we will be able to accumulate only 12-13 billion cubic metres. This will not be enough for the autumn and winter period of 2021-2022. It threatens to shut down the hydropower station,” the expert said.

Overhead power lines of Kyrgyzstan. Photo: kbcity.kg

In response to regular accusations of unauthorised bulk water sales faced by power engineers, Electric Power Plants Joint-Stock Company said this is technically impossible. According to the technical director of the agency, Altynbek Aitikeev, “the Kurpsai HPP is located downstream, then follow Tash-Kumyr, Shamaldysai and Uch-Kurgan HPPs. They cannot let the water go for no particular reason. The power engineering is a science that makes sure that you generate as much power as you need. There cannot be any extra power. We don’t supply water, we supply electricity. We have near-border electric metres that have nearly 10 tamper-evident seals on them.”

The reason for the electricity imports from neighbouring countries this year, according to Aitikeev, is the increase in domestic consumption amid almost zero capacity growth. The official referred to the ongoing “low-flow period.” 

“We are stretched too thin,” said Kanybek Omorov, lead engineer of Electric Power Plants. “We need to first build the Kambarata-1 HPP upstream of the Toktogul reservoir to cope with the power shortage. Once it releases water in winter and generates power, the Toktogul reservoir will be accumulating it. Water is our strategic resource and once we build the Kambarata-1, we’ll have even more options of control. Our capacity will increase. We need to build new reservoirs”.

Inefficient management?

This is the second case in the modern history of Kyrgyzstan when the power shortage is filled with imports. Kyrgyzstan purchased about one and a half billion kilowatt hours of electricity from neighbouring Kazakhstan at a price over 4 cents in the autumn and winter period of 2014-2015. However, the years of 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013 were wet years according to the analysis of institute of water problems and hydropower of the Academy of Sciences of Kyrgyzstan. The inflow of water in each of these years exceeded 100 per cent of the average long-term value. That’s why even if 2014 were “a dry year with 70 per cent of average inflow, it wouldn’t cause the power crisis and the need to import electricity,” said the academician and ex-head of the research institute, Duishon Mamatkanov. “The Toktogul HPP is a long-term hydraulic structure. It’s task is to ensure that the long-term storages of wet years are consumed in low-water years.” (Editorial comment: the academician of the Academy of Sciences of the Kyrgyz Republic, Duishon Mamatkanov, died on October 26 at the age of 85. The comment was given in September).

Photo courtesy of the late Duishon Mamatkanov, the academician of the Academy of Sciences, energy expert.

The calculation of the water availability in the reservoir at the beginning of 2014 and 2015 showed that during that year more than 15 billion cubic metres of water were drawn off the reservoir. However, according to the estimates of the Interstate Coordination Water Management Commission, it is prohibited to draw off more than 12 billion cubic metres of water from the reservoir during the year. If this limit is exceeded, it becomes impossible to control power generation in case of water inflow fluctuation. The staff of the institute arrived at a conclusion that the republican power engineers do not rely on scientifically based rules of rational management of hydropower resources. This conclusion and the government’s plans to import electricity from neighbours from 2014 thru 2017, which were already formalised in the government decree No. 660 of November 20, 2014, served as the basis for Mamatkanov’s request to give legal evaluation of the actions of officials submitted in February 2015 to the General Prosecutor’s Office.

“… The above facts confirm that the power supply crisis in the republic, which has already caused and will cause colossal damage to the people and national economy, material hardships and social disasters existing for more than one year, is not related to natural and environmental conditions. It is the consequence and result of negligence, improper execution of official duties, and possibly (which only the investigation can confirm) corruption and abuse of powers of the former and current ministers of energy of the Kyrgyz Republic: A. Shadiev; O. Artykbaev; K. Turdubaev, as well as the prime ministers of the Kyrgyz Republic Zh. Satybaldiev; Zh. Otorbaev and other responsible persons,” according to the request.

Two months after the request, the issue was considered by the Defence Council chaired by the President of Kyrgyzstan Almazbek Atambaev. The council found that the government performed “unsatisfactorily” in ensuring security of energy supply, and also liquidated the ministry of energy and industry. However, none of the officials mentioned in the request was brought to justice.

“In 2015, rolling blackouts continued,” said Mamatkanov. “Prosecutors inspected us for 3 months, but we proved the validity of our calculations. What did they do next? Instead of modernisation, they liquidated the Ministry of Energy, and created some mixture. Moreover, it is the Ministry of Energy that should have become the core agency.”

Glaciers of Kyrgyzstan are rapidly melting. Photo: archive of CABAR.asia

This year, according to Mamatkanov, almost the same situation has developed. Just three years after the complete filling of the Toktogul reservoir, Kyrgyzstan again has found itself on the verge of an energy crisis.

 “They give water for free, instead of selling it. It’s not the state, it’s something else,” Mamatkanov said. “And then they turn off power to by saying it is because of the lack of water. We proved there were no water scarcity. This should not happen, they just deceive people. If low water occurs, it is a natural thing, this is what the Toktogul reservoir was built for, in order to mitigate the consequences. The only reason for the shortage is ineffective and poor management. And complete irresponsibility as well.”

According to the expert, none of the industry executives has been held liable for the energy crisis of 2008, when President Bakiev advised the population to use dung cakes for heating, or in 2014, when electricity tariffs were raised up to their current rate. However, according to expert estimates, Kyrgyzstan spends more than 700 million dollars annually to purchase liquefied coal, fuel oil and petroleum products for generating electricity in winter.

Winter of 2020-2021. Expectations.

The officials of Kyrgyzstan have assured the people that no rolling blackouts will be in autumn-winter period of 2020-2021 since summer. However, experts doubt their promises. According to them, rolling blackouts will take place in any case. They will now be called differently: interruptions, restrictions, emergency, preventive, scheduled maintenance outages. The consumption limits for the cities of Bishkek and Osh were established on April 30, 2020 by the government decree No. 228 “On the preparation of economic sectors and the population of the Kyrgyz Republic for the autumn-winter period of 2020-2021.” Meanwhile, some or other districts of Bishkek face regular messages of power outages for “adjusting the operation of equipment and power grids, installation of power lines, maintenance of substations and other works” once cold weather came.

This article was prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project.

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