On January 6, the energy ministers of Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan signed an agreement on the construction of the Kambar-Ata-1 hydropower plant on the Naryn river in Kyrgyzstan.
Meeting in Bishkek, Kyrgyz Energy Minister Taalaibek Ibraev, Kazakh Energy Minister Bolat Aqsholaqov, and Uzbek Energy Minister Jurabek Mirzamahmudov signed a roadmap for the construction of the long-awaited dam, emphasizing that the project would benefit all three countries.
Ibraev framed the project as providing a pathway to energy security for Kyrgyzstan.
“If we build the Kambar-Ata-1 hydroelectric power station together with neighboring countries, the shortage of electricity in our country will be eliminated,” he said. The document signed between the three ministers has been described as a “roadmap.”
“Preparations for the construction of the Kambar-Ata-1 hydroelectric power plant, construction of roads, bridges, power lines, construction sites are being prepared,” Ibraev said.
Kambar-Ata-1 (also written as Kambarata-1) is not a new proposal. Indeed, the first such hydropower project at the site was begun in 1986, but construction fell victim to the Soviet collapse in 1991. By 2008, Russia had taken up the Kambar-Ata-1 project and the Upper Naryn Cascade project and pledged funding; however, little actual work was done and by 2014 — especially after Russia invaded Crimea — it became clear that the projects were not a priority for Moscow.
In late 2015, then-Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev was openly questioning Russia’s commitment, saying in an end-of-year press conference: “I don’t like uncompleted construction projects, one should be realistic. We all see the state of the Russian economy, it is, shall we say, not on the rise, and for objective reasons, these agreements (on the construction of hydropower plants) can’t be implemented by the Russian party.”
Of course, the question then became: If not Russia, who would fund this massive project?
That detail has not been fleshed out in reporting on the recent roadmap signing, but this past summer, Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov attended the advertised launch of construction at the site and announced that 412.8 million Kyrgyz soms had been allocated from the budget for “research, feasibility study and other work.” He also said that 1.5 billion soms had been allocated from the budget “in order to independently begin construction work at the facility.”
In essence, start to build it and they (additional funding and partners, that is) will come.
The project will include the construction of a dam, estimated at 256 meters, and a power plant with installed capacity of 1,860 megawatts. According to 24.kg’s reporting, “The Kambarata HPP-1 will generate an average of 5.6 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity with a full reservoir volume of 5.4 billion cubic meters of water.”
In light of the roadmap signing with Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, proper construction is expected to now begin by 2024 and the first unit planned to be operational by 2028. Kambar-Ata-1 is but one of several hydropower projects along the Naryn river that have been suggested or studied over the years.
A decade ago, Uzbekistan was not a big fan of the Kambar-Ata-1 project (just as it was not so keen on Tajikistan’s Rogun dam) with the country’s main concerns being the threat to its water supplies if dams were built upstream and the threat of an alternative energy exporter in the region. But times have changed, both politically in Uzbekistan but also with regard to regional energy supplies. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan have all in recent years suffered from considerable energy shortages, particularly in winter; they would all benefit from additional supplies in the neighborhood.
All that said, it’s still a long pathway ahead. At the earliest, Kambar-Ata-1 would be able to start producing electricity in 2028. The financing remains unclear, and such projects are not cheap. Finally, as Central Asia’s glaciers continue to shrink, the long-term value of these massive hydroelectric projects may dwindle too.