Rogun, Tajikistan (AFP) | Tajik President Emomali Rakhmon on Friday inaugurated what is expected to be the world´s tallest hydroelectric power plant, a $3.9 billion project that will turn the impoverished authoritarian country into a key power producer in Central Asia.
In a colourful ceremony in the Pamir mountains, the Tajik leader pushed a large symbolic button to applause from the audience to mark the first of six turbines in the Rogun hydroelectric dam going online.
"The long-held dream of our compatriots has been realised," said Rakhmon, who has ruled since 1992, before celebratory fireworks whistled through the evening air.
"This historic event will be written into history with golden letters for the current and future generations."
Men in hard hats danced to songs about the dam and waved national flags. "Rogun is light, Rogun is the glory!" went one of the songs.
World Bank vice president for Europe and Central Asia Cyril Muller said at the ceremony that Rogun would "help transform Tajikistan´s economy, and create the foundation for a prosperous future".
The power plant is expected to reach the capacity of 3,600 megawatts -- the equivalent of three nuclear power plants -- when it is completed in a decade.
The dam will double energy production in the poor ex-Soviet country of nearly nine million people, alleviating a debilitating national energy deficit.
Surplus energy will be sold to neighbours such as Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Built on the powerful Vakhsh River in southern Tajikistan, the plant is expected to reach a height of 335 metres (1,099 feet) when completed, becoming the world´s tallest hydroelectric dam.
Today, Rogun -- overseen by the Italian company Salini Impregilo -- is still a vast construction site, with rocky earth covering the territory from which the Vakhsh was diverted.
In 2016, Rakhmon, a former collective farm boss, climbed into a bulldozer at a groundbreaking for the dam, in a sign of the president´s attachment to the scheme.
Plans to build the Rogun dam date back to the Soviet era, but the project was scaled up in recent years.
In 2017, Tajikistan raised $500 million from an inaugural international bond to help finance the construction.
Authorities hope that when the project gains momentum it will generate money to finance further construction.
The second turbine will be launched next year.
The project is hugely significant for a country that lost tens of thousands of people in a civil war in the 1990s and there have been calls to rename the dam after Rakhmon.
If it reaches the planned height of 335 metres, Rogun will be 30 metres taller than the recently-built Jinping-I Dam in China and 35 metres taller than Tajikistan´s own Soviet-era Nurek dam, also on the Vakhsh River.
The project has a number of risks, however.
Observers warn that the Tajik authorities do not appear to concern themselves with the environmental sensitivities of Rogun.
It is located "in a highly seismic area, and several geological studies have warned about the risks of building such a large dam in this setting," Filippo Menga, a lecturer in human geography at the University of Reading in the United Kingdom, told AFP.
But Rakhmon sought to ease some of these concerns on Friday, noting that "all necessary norms" had been observed.
Geopolitical tensions surrounding the project have, for the moment, subsided in a region that suffers from water scarcity.
Uzbekistan´s late leader Islam Karimov once hinted that his downstream agriculture-dependent country might go to war over Rogun and a similar project in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan.
But Uzbek opposition to the dam has evaporated since Karimov´s death in 2016.
Representatives of Uzbekistan´s state energy company Uzbekenergo attended the inauguration and the country of 32 million people could one day become a client.
Muller of the World Bank paid tribute to warming relations between the two countries at the inaugural ceremony as the audience cheered.
Bilateral tensions, he said, were a "challenge, which had placed the project on uncertain grounds for the longest time" but had now been resolved.


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