On Tuesday, widespread power outages were reported in Central Asia, affecting millions living in parts of southern Kazakhstan, much of northern Kyrgyzstan, and large swaths of Uzbekistan.
The precise cause of the outage is unclear, but the widespread blackout highlights a series of interconnected and concerning problems relating to reliable energy supplies in the region. These include deficits in infrastructure development and modernization; increased demand owing to both population and industry growth; and decreased supplies at least partially linked to the effects of climate change, manifesting in low reservoir levels in Kyrgyzstan.
Across these areas, one cannot discount the influence of corruption in hollowing out projects designed to improve the regional energy infrastructure, a major focus in recent years. The January 2018 breakdown of the Bishkek Heating and Power Plant soon after a modernization project was completed by a Chinese company is illustrative in this respect.
As my colleague Paolo Sorbello highlighted in an article in November 2021, Kazakh authorities pegged electricity shortages at the time on increased demand related to the boom in cryptocurrency mining in the country (itself a result of China’s ban on cryptomining). Framing framing cryptocurrency mining as the primary problem, he wrote, “seems to be a shortcut to sweep the real infrastructural problems under the rug.” Those problems, he argued, included continued industrial reliance on coal and decrepit infrastructure.
The January 25, 2022 blackouts hit the region around lunchtime and extended to Central Asia’s three largest cities: Tashkent, Almaty, and Bishkek — together hosting a population of more than 5.1 million. Outages were reported in southern Kazakhstan, in much of northern Kyrgyzstan as well as the southern cities of Osh and Jalalabad, and across the entirely of Uzbekistan from Tashkent to Samarkand, Bukhara, Kokand, and even Nukus.
Reuters cited Kazakhstan Electricity Grid Operating Company as stating that Kazakhstan’s North-South power line, which connects northern Kazakhstan to southern Kazakhstan, where the grid then connects to Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, was disconnected due to “emergency imbalances” in the Central Asian Power System (CAPS). The cause of the “emergency imbalance” has not been reported yet.
The electrical grids of the three Central Asian countries are interconnected, a system that dates to the Soviet era and was designed to help balance seasonal differences in power generation capacities across the then-Soviet Republics. Hydropower-rich and mountainous Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan would supply excess electricity to the rest of the region during the summer, and in winter receive electricity from hydrocarbon-rich Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
Turkmenistan withdrew from CAPS in 2003 and Tajikistan was cut out in 2009. In 2018, the Asian Development Bank approved a $35 million grant to reconnect Tajikistan to CAPS, via Uzbekistan — an effort only made possible by the warming of political relations between the two countries after the 2016 death of Uzbek President Islam Karimiov. That project is scheduled for completion in 2022.
As the three affected countries restore electricity, they appear to be doing so disconnected from the unified grid. This means that each will supply its own energy domestically, which could prove problematic in the long run given that the factors mandating the existence of the unified grid remain.
For example, the “expected outcomes” of constructing Kazakhstan’s North-South power line, a project completed in 2009, was to facilitate electricity producers in northern Kazakhstan specifically to “supply South Kazakhstan and the Central Asia integrated system, and to meet winter electricity supply shortages in Uzbekistan.” As recently as January 13, Uzbek authorities said they were importing electricity from abroad (presumably from Kazakhstan) in order to not disrupt domestic power supplies or interrupt energy exports to Afghanistan. Those statements followed unexpected cut offs of electricity to Afghanistan on several occasions in the preceding months and agreements by both the governments of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan with the Taliban to continue electricity exports to Afghanistan.
Self-sufficiency may soon become the demand of politicians to respond to domestic anger over energy issues, but establishing energy independence (if that’s even possible) takes time and it’s winter already. All of the Central Asian states have dealt, for years, with energy outages; these have primarily affected populations outside of major cities (as an excellent upcoming article from Sher Khashimov in the February issue of our magazine explains in the context of Tajikistan). As frustration over energy woes expands into Central Asia’s population centers — just as protests over gas price hikes in Kazakhstan spread from the west of the country to Almaty — the political consequences of the region’s shaky energy infrastructure will surely rise to the surface, with potentially devastating consequences.