On Tuesday, those pushing the interconnectivity of Central and South Asia saw, according to Pakistani officials, an “historic accord.” Representatives from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan gathered in Istanbul to formalize agreements behind the Central Asia South Asia Electricity Transmission and Trade Project (CASA-1000). Planned to export a total of 1,300 MW of excess summer electricity from Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan – sending 1,000 MW to Pakistan and 300 MW to Afghanistan – and to be completed by 2018, the agreement, according to Pakistani politician Khurram Dastgir Khan, represented the final touches of a “visionary project.” U.S. Deputy Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Fatema Sumar said that the signing showed the region “taking real steps to connect their energy grid[.]”
Lofty speech and admirable goals. But given the current energy situation on the ground – and for the foreseeable future – CASA-1000 currently stands as another interregional project stocked with rhetoric but short on reality. Much like the U.S.-backed TAPI pipeline, CASA-1000 appears largely an exercise in pointlessness – a waste of time and capital, and further evidence that Washington’s policy in the region remains stuck on projects that show a disconcerting lack of understanding of the facts on the ground.
But whereas TAPI at least contains a nugget of potential – Turkmenistan, after all, appears to have the requisite gas to reach Pakistani and Indian markets – CASA-1000 cannot even boast sufficient supply to make the project worthwhile. As currently structured, the project would see Tajikistan supply 70 percent of the requisite electricity, with Kyrgyzstan supplying the remaining 30 percent. Again, this notion remains fine on paper – until you realize that Kyrgyzstan is currently facing a 2.5bil kW/h electricity shortfall this winter, and has been forced to import electricity from Kazakhstan, with Turkmenistan and Russia also in discussions for additional supply. (A recent announcement from Gazprom further illustrated Kyrgyzstan’s energy woes, with southern Kyrgyzstan now likely to be without gas delivery for years to come.) How the CASA-1000 project plans to compensate for the fact that one of its planned exports is currently facing a massive shortfall, US and regional officials would not say.
Nor would they address the fact that CASA-1000 remains one of the few multilateral interregional projects that could very well exacerbate regional tensions. Both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have demanded that their major hydropower projects – including Tajikistan’s Rogun Dam, currently planned as the world’s largest dam – remain included in the grid. Tajikistan President Emomali Rakhmon has gone so far as to say that CASA-1000 “is not profitable unless two units of Rogun [hydropower plant] are running.” Uzbekistan, which relies heavily on hydro imports from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, disagrees – and has pushed back against the entire concept of CASA-1000. As a 2013 letter from Tashkent to the World Bank, which supports CASA-1000, explained, “The implementation of the CASA-1000 Project is integral with the plans of the Tajik and Kyrgyz participants to construct gigantic hydro-engineering facilities – the Rogun HPP and [Kyrgyzstan’s] Kambarata HPP-I, which will catastrophically aggravate the already tense water management situation in the region.”
The letter and rhetoric dovetails off of Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov’s prior comments that water demands in the region “can spark not simply serious confrontation but even wars.” That’s not to say CASA-1000 will provide the final guarantee for some kind of hydro-based hostilities – CASA-1000, again, stands little likelihood of actual enactment for the foreseeable future, no matter what inflated rhetoric American and regional officials use. But yesterday’s signing certainly doesn’t soothe tensions, and only offers Karimov further fodder. CASA-1000 currently serves only to distract from projects that could actually alleviate current and forthcoming tensions. Yesterday’s accord may have been historic, but the project will almost certainly remain grounded for years to come, and beyond.