President Emomali Rahmon hopes that by building the world's tallest dam Tajikistan can be pulled out of poverty. Image by Joshua Kucera. Tajikistan, 2013.

For the president of a small, poor country, Tajikistan's president, Emomali Rahmon, thinks big. He's remaking his capital, Dushanbe, with brand-new buildings and monuments inspired partly by Dubai, partly by Las Vegas. He's built a $300 million Palace of Nations, which reportedly stands largely empty (no one is quite sure of its function). There's a new national library, also reportedly largely empty of books. And in 2011 Dushanbe erected the world's tallest flagpole, stealing that record from Baku in Azerbaijan, which had built one three meters shorter less than a year before.

A number of Central Asian capitals are getting similarly over-the-top makeovers. But Rahmon is doing this in spite of the fact that, unlike many of his oil-rich neighbors like Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, he doesn't really have the money to burn. Tajikistan was the poorest, least developed part of the Soviet Union, and a terrible civil war in the 1990s set the country even further back.

But Rahmon has a plan to help pull Tajikistan out of poverty. And it's another big one: the world's tallest dam. Tajikistan doesn't have a lot of natural advantages, but it does have a lot of water. So Rahmon has dusted off Soviet plans to build the dam on the Vakhsh River, next to the small town of Rogun. The idea is that it would both both provide enough electricity for Tajikistan, which has chronic energy shortages, while also producing enough surplus electricity to export abroad for revenue. Tajikistan, incidentally, already has the current world's tallest dam, Nurek, which is approximately 300 meters tall, about 30 meters shorter than Rogun would be.

But Rahmon's plan has a number of catches. One is who would fund it. It is projected to cost between two and six billion dollars, which Tajikistan doesn't have, so it will have to rely on foreign investors. But perhaps the more difficult problem to solve is that Uzbekistan, Tajikistan's downstream neighbor, strongly opposes the dam. The two countries have difficult relations, and the water from the Vakhsh eventually ends up in Uzbekistan's cotton fields. So Uzbekistan's government is worried that Tajikistan would be able to use this as a lever against them. And Uzbekistan has gone so far as to threaten war to stop the dam being built.

But Rahmon has framed the project as having national strategic importance to Tajikistan, and public promotion of the dam is absolutely ubiquitous all over the country. Rahmon even forced his impoverished citizens to contribute some of their tiny paychecks to keep work on the dam going. So it's going to be hard for him to turn back. Although the United Nations and World Bank are involved in trying to find a mutually agreeable solution, there's not a lot of room for negotiation between the two countries.

In the town of Rogun itself, there is little sense of this drama. The town looks like a lot of other remote parts of the former Soviet Union, with rusting factories and peeling apartment blocks, surrounded by spectacular mountains. But there are signs exhorting citizens to support the dam project are even more ubiquitous here than in the rest of Tajikistan. And there is a small trickle of trucks bearing concrete and other supplies, and some signs of construction – both from the Soviet era and from a skeleton crew continuing work on the project today. Far below the town, under a 500 meter bluff, the Vakhsh River rushes. Whether that trickle of trucks becomes a flood and the rushing Vakhsh is tamed by a dam is anyone's guess. But it will take some deft diplomacy to keep the dam from creating conflict between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

Project

Chronically unstable and corrupt — and now bracing for more chaos from Afghanistan — Tajikistan's president is staking his country's future on the biggest dam in the world.

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