Uzbekistan drops objections to giant Tajik hydro project

DUSHANBE, March 9 (Reuters) - Uzbekistan no longer objects to the construction of the world’s tallest dam in Tajikistan along a river shared by the two Central Asian nations, their presidents indicated after a meeting on Friday.

Tashkent’s resistance - and its ability to put pressure on Dushanbe by disrupting the flow of goods into the impoverished country - has been one of the main risks for Tajikistan’s Rogun hydroelectric power plant project.

Tajikistan hopes that Rogun, which it is building on the Vakhsh river, will help ease energy shortages and provide extra revenue by enabling power exports to Pakistan and Afghanistan after 2020.

It awarded a $3.9 billion contract for dam construction to Italy’s Salini Impregilo in 2016, which started the work the same year. But Uzbekistan, which lies downstream, has long objected to the project, fearing it would disrupt the flow of water needed by Uzbek farmers.

Tashkent has changed its position following the death of President Islam Karimov, its leader for 27 years, in 2016.

Karimov’s successor, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, arrived in Tajikistan on Friday in a first official visit by an Uzbek president in 18 years. Karimov had only visited the neighbouring country for multilateral meetings since 2000.

“We share the view that the existing hydropower facilities and those under construction will help resolve the region’s water and power issues,” Tajik leader Imomali Rakhmon told reporters after meeting Mirziyoyev.

“In this regard, we welcome Uzbekistan’s support for the development of hydropower facilities in Tajikistan, including Rogun.”

Mirziyoyev, in turn, said Uzbekistan would seek to boost the share of hydro power in its consumption by purchasing it from Tajikistan. “We will never leave our neighbours without water,” Rakhmon reassured him. (Reporting by Nazarali Pirnazarov Writing by Olzhas Auyezov Editing by Mark Heinrich)