Global Policy Forum

Winter Gas Shortages in Uzbekistan

Natural gas rich Uzbekistan is facing gas shortages this winter as the government favors exporting over domestic use. Consumers are turning to other forms of energy, such as burning low-grade coal or wood, to keep warm when facing subzero temperatures. Despite the frustrations over the shortages of gas, Uzbeks won't lobby their government to hold more gas in reserve for domestic use because they fear government reprisals.



By IWPR Central Asia

February 3, 2011

Despite abundant reserves of natural gas, Uzbekistan is struggling with supplies to domestic consumers, forcing many to improvise heating and cooking facilities to get them through the winter.

Experts say the authorities prioritise export sales over domestic consumers, making supplies intermittent in parts of Uzbekistan where temperatures dip well below zero.

Used to hardship, Uzbekistan's residents are finding inventive ways of coping.

"Temperatures at night are currently 15 degrees below zero, and there's a strong wind," a farmer in Khorezm, a north-western region of Uzbekistan. "People are heating their stoves with 'guzpaya', dried-up cotton stalks. We're also buying low-grade coal which doesn't give off much heat."

Salim, a 40-year-old father of four from Margilan, in the eastern Fergana region, found another way of dealing with the gas cuts. Copying his neighbours, he laid bricks in his main room, leaving a space where he burns wood to create a heated floor. The family does its cooking on a stove running on gas cylinders.

Another Margilan resident, who gave her name as Nargiza, has a wood-burning stove inside her apartment, a typical solution in towns where multi-storey apartments have their gas supply cut off for several hours every day.

"We installed it several years ago and now we all gather in that room to get warm," she said.

Like many apartment owners, Nargiza has to cook outside on an open fire.

Uzbekistan has substantial reserves of natural gas and produces more than 60 billion cubic metres a year. Some is exported to Russia and to neighbouring Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, but official statistics show that most is consumed within the country.

Experts blame the chronic shortages on a number of factors, some of them to do with infrastructure.

The mains supply network is crumbling due to underfunding, leading to numerous leaks, and there are not enough storage facilities to ensure a steady supply over winter, when demand shoots up.

"The country has sufficient natural gas, but the problem is that the equipment is old; the gas distribution system doesn't use modern technology," an analyst in Tashkent said, adding that installing new pump technology was vital, as the flow of gas through the pipes slowed when the weather was cold.

Funding problems are aggravated by retail customers failing to pay their gas bills.

But the root of the problem, experts say, is that the authorities are less interested in ensuring a steady supply to the domestic market than in meeting commitments for the lucrative export market.

As the government runs short of revenues, it is increasingly reliant on revenues from gas and the other main export item, cotton.

A manager with a municipal utilities agency in Tashkent complained that any unused gas in storage was sold off to Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan instead of being retained for the winter period. This was done by the city mayor's office, "but is of course agreed with higher authorities", he said.

Despite the hardships caused by gas supply cuts, protests are rare because people fear harassment or arrest.

A 60-year-old resident of Khorezm region who gave his name as Ahmed recalled how local residents wrote to their local government and staged a demonstration about the cuts.

"The police immediately came and demanded that we disperse," Ahmed said, adding that the more vocal protesters were summoned for questioning by the National Security Service. "They came back silent and reticent. Since then, we haven't complained for fear of reprisals. We just wait for spring."








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