Perhaps the first foreign official to arrive in Tashkent in 2023 was the Taliban’s Acting Energy and Water Minister Mullah Abdul Latif Mansour, who traveled north on January 1 and returned to Kabul the next day with an agreement on the export of electricity to Afghanistan from Uzbekistan.
It’s been another rough winter for both Uzbekistan and Afghanistan. Agreements made between the two sides may still be upended by the very real fragility of Central Asia’s energy systems — politically and infrastructurally.
According to the Taliban government’s Ministry of Energy and Water, Mansour “called solving the electricity problem with Uzbekistan and extending the contract as one of the important purposes of the trip and explained that fortunately the trip had a good achievement and both purposes were fully achieved.”
Energy shortages are particularly acute in the winter, when plunging temperatures cause spikes in energy demands. This was true in the winter of 2021-22 and is happening again in the present winter.
In very late December 2021, the head of Afghanistan’s power utility — Da Afghanistan Breshna Sherkat (DABS) — traveled to both Tajikistan and Uzbekistan to secure continued electricity supplies for Afghanistan. In early January 2022, it was announced that Uzbekistan had agreed to supply 2 billion kilowatt hours (kWh) to Afghanistan in 2022 for around $100 million. Within two weeks, however, Uzbekistan suddenly cut supplies to Afghanistan by 60 percent — “without coordination,” the Afghan side said — reportedly as the result of a “technical problem.” That followed outages the previous month.
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As the winter subsided, so too did outages. In a related matter, it wasn’t until August 2022 that Kabul settled its debts with Uzbekistan for the supply of energy in 2021 and began making payments for 2022 supplies. Shortly after coming to power in August 2021, it was revealed — to the shock of very few — that the Taliban were not able to pay Afghanistan’s energy bills. With 78 percent of its electricity needs met by imports, Kabul’s lack of access to the former Republic government’s coffers was a serious problem. Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, which both supply electricity to their southern neighbor, did not sever supplies.
And then it was winter again, and on both sides of the border outages and shortages began to bite.
In November 2022, Uzbekistan began experiencing widespread power outages due to a shortage of natural gas. Tashkent all but suspended exports of gas amid surges in domestic demand. The bulk of electricity in Uzbekistan is generated from natural gas, making a natural gas shortage a big threat to the country’s electricity supplies both domestically and for export. The situation did not improve as winter settled in. Uzbekistan’s Ministry of Energy reported in mid-December that 64 districts and cities in at least six of the country’s 13 regions were experiencing outages “due to lower than normal pressure in gas pipelines.”
The shortages affected Uzbekistan’s energy-thirsty industrial sector, with several notable shutdowns in an effort to keep gas flowing to homes and apartments. In early December several workers at a gypsum plant in the Fergana Region were arrested for staging a protest following the plant’s shutdown the previous month — which put them out of work.
More devastating have been reports of people, including children, dying amid energy shortages. As an article last month from RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service, Ozodlik, highlighted the gas shortages in Uzbekistan since late November have arguably caused the deaths of more than 30 people, half of which have been children, many from carbon monoxide poisoning that occurred when families turned to alternative, unsafe, heating sources during electricity outages. As the article explains, officials often write these deaths off as the fault of the families, but the core reason is a lack of safe heating, a product of gas shortages, which are, in the eyes of many, the result of years of neglect with regard to the country’s domestic energy infrastructure.
Also in mid-December, Uzbek authorities said that electricity supplies to Afghanistan had been reduced — due to maintenance work on one of the transmission networks — but had not been cut off. Uzbekistan’s clarification came after a DABS representative blamed Uzbekistan for interruptions to supplies in Afghanistan, leading to power outages.
According to TOLO News, under the new agreement Mansour returned to Kabul with, Uzbekistan will supply Afghanistan with 450 megawatts of electricity during the winter. Kabul likely hopes that this will be enough to make it through another winter.
Back in Uzbekistan, authorities in Tashkent have arguably been more open about the present problems than in previous years (though the arrests mentioned above illustrate the limits of tolerance to complaints). Uzbekistan’s Minister of Energy Zhurabek Mirzamakhmudov, in an interview with Ozodlik last month, admitted that the damage of the power outages and gas cuts to the country’s economy has been significant. “The damage is very huge. The damage is estimated in the billions or even trillions. When there is no electricity and gas, production decreases, taxes are not paid, and exports decrease. Economic development is slowing down,” he said.
Mirzamakhmudov framed the government’s decisions to disconnect some industry from gas supplies as an effort to provide gas to citizens instead. But as in Fergana, shuttering businesses in order to supply homes with gas merely shifts the problem but does not solve it.
As populations continue to grow in Uzbekistan and Afghanistan, demand for energy will continue to rise. There is plenty that can be done, from updating dilapidated infrastructure and investing in education and innovation to better conserve and economically use energy, to diversifying energy sources. That said, it’s not simple or easy and will also require attention to corruption, which has long siphoned off funds earmarked for infrastructure improvements.