Rogun Dam - IDAR 2024

Co-published with Rivers without Boundaries, Coalition for Human Rights in Development and other partners

Today on the 27th International Day of Action for Rivers, international and local civil society organizations (CSOs) share the appeal they sent to the World Bank and 15 other financiers – members of the “Rogun Coordination Group”. 

In Tajikistan, the government is dreaming big. To build one of the tallest dams in the world, Tajikistan is bringing together old foes and getting support from all the major financiers in the world. But for dozens of thousands of people, this is far from being a dream: the Rogun dam – with its catastrophic environmental and social risks – is rather set to turn into their worst nightmare.

Built along the Vakhsh River, the Rogun dam is expected to displace at least 40.000 people. Precious ecosystems, including the UNESCO World Heritage site “Tugay Forests of the Tigrovaya Balka”, risk being heavily impacted. And as the river flow to the Aral Sea will be severely reduced, there will be repercussions also for the neighbouring countries downstream (Afghanistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan).

Yet, despite these worrying impacts, the concerns of the affected communities risk remaining unheard. According to CIVICUS, the space for civil society in Tajikistan is “closed”: as human rights defenders and journalists are routinely imprisoned and attacked, most people live in a climate of fear and they would not even dare to raise their concerns and openly oppose a project.

In such a restrictive context, no consultations around the Rogun dam can be considered meaningful: for development banks investing in the project, it is virtually impossible to comply with their commitments to public participation. Yet, more and more financiers are jumping in the band-wagon and rushing to fund this destructive dam.

The Rogun hydropower plant was first conceived in the 1970s and the project was then relaunched in 2006. If completed, with its 335 metres in height and 13 cubic km storage, Rogun will become the biggest structure of this kind in the world. Works have already started, but less than 25% of all construction works have been completed.

Tajikistan has already spent USD 3.3 billion on it, but lacks at least USD 6.1 billion to finish building the dam. During the last decade, projected costs of Rogun Dam completion have increased by 15% annually.

Despite the concerns around the project and the rising costs, Rogun is still attracting investments from all over the world (including Europe, China and Iran), as Tajikistan is at the crossroads of major geopolitical interests. Bordering Afghanistan and China, in the past decades it has been mainly under the Russian sphere of interest. Recently, however, Europe has also been seeking to expand its influence here, to reduce the Central Asian countries’ dependence on Russia and to counter China’s Belt and Road Initiative. 

Some of the major international financial institutions – World Bank (WB), European Investment Bank (EIB), European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), Islamic Development Bank (IDB), Eurasian Development Bank (EDB), the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) – are getting involved in the “Rogun sustainable finance” scheme orchestrated by the World Bank. Other development banks (e.g:  Asian Development Bank, ADB) are financing associated projects, such as transmission lines or the roads.

Most of these banks, in their safeguards, are committed to comply with environmental and social safeguards. Yet, to push forward with this project, they are ignoring their own policies and disregarding the concerns raised for years by international and regional organisations.

For instance, in 2010 the Ecological Movement of Uzbekistan submitted a formal complaint to the World Bank’s Inspection Panel. In their conclusions, the World Bank stated that with an adapted design it would be possible to build and operate the dam safely, but that it would be very expensive for Tajikistan, would affect the state’s ability to support the poor, would cause significant resettlement, and may impact on water flows. Yet, no further actions were taken to address these concerns.

In recent months, international and civil society organisations have addressed several letters to international finance institutions, calling on them to withdraw from this highly controversial project.

In particular, they have highlighted the following concerns:

1. Social impacts

Over 7000 people have been displaced so far, and it is estimated that 38.000 additional people will have to be resettled once the project will be completed. In a 2014 report, Human Rights Watch already highlighted some of the negative impacts for the displaced communities, including lack of access to land for farming and raising livestock, reduced access to and variety of food, loss of income-generating activities, unreliable and inadequate access to basic services, and lack of fair or adequate compensation.

2. Fiscal health

According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Tajikistan is already under huge fiscal pressure. Financing Rogun will push the level of debt far beyond sustainable levels and exacerbate fiscal health problems, especially considering the increasing project costs and delays. The construction of this mega-dam will also force the government to reduce spending on essential services, such as health, education, social welfare and other infrastructures.

3. Impacts on the environment and biodiversity

Building a dam on the Vakhsh River would impact the connected rivers and water basins, with huge impacts on the ecosystems and agriculture. For instance the Amu Darya, a major river in Central Asia, gets 40 percent of its water from the Vakhsh. The dam risks having destructive environmental impacts also on the “Tugay Forests of the Tigrovaya Balka”, a World Heritage site in the Vakhsh River floodplain, and degrading the habitat of critically endangered species, such as the endemic sturgeons.

4. The project is not climate-friendly

According to EU standards, with expected emissions of more than 102g CO2 e/KWH, the Rogun project does not meet the criteria for a “substantial contribution” to climate change mitigation. Nor will Rogun hydropower contribute to the decarbonisation of the Tajik energy system, which has a similar emission intensity (106g CO2 e/KWH). If Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan decide to rely on energy imports from this source, the project could delay Central Asia’s green transition by 15 years. Alternative renewable schemes could be built five times faster and three times cheaper than the giant Rogun dam.

5. Lack of transparency and consultations

The “updated” Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA), published in December 2023 by the World Bank, omits consequences of several risks, which have previously been the focus of public attention. In 2023-24, no meaningful regional consultations on the environmental social impact assessment (ESIA) have been announced, the updated ESIA has not been fully disclosed, and the biodiversity management plan and resettlement framework are not publicly available yet. A Stakeholder Engagement Plan (SEP) was published in February 2024, but it does not satisfy basic policy requirements. Moreover, none of these project materials are available in Tajik language, which casts doubt on the fact that free prior and meaningful consultations were held locally, as claimed on the website of the Rogun project proponents. This lack of transparency and meaningful consultations is particularly concerning, in a context where political and individual freedoms are restricted, and there are low levels of transparency, high level of corruption, and widespread human rights violations. 

A message for the development banks involved in the Rogun dam

It is difficult to see how banks such as the EIB, EBRD, World Bank, AIIB and ADB can justify their involvement in this project. While environmental and social policies and procedures are useful for improving business practices and implementing processes to mitigate individual impacts, they will not have a significant impact on such an already significantly flawed project. Better procedures may help prevent some misconduct, but they can’t make the resettlement of 40,000 people acceptable, nor can they guarantee water security and ecological balance in the already struggling Amu Darya Basin. If development banks want to comply with their safeguards and stay true to their promises, there is only one possible solution: withdraw from this project, before it’s too late.