By Paul Rimple
Like most of regional Georgia, Samegrelo has been in a state of
suspended animation for a decade. Factories stand abandoned, pitted
roads await resurfacing, hospitals make do without medicine, tea
plantations go unpicked. The legitimate economy is virtually immobile.
Electricity, the key to giving the regional economy a kick in the seat,
is today, at best, an intermittent commodity.
The issue has implications that stretch far beyond this western region.
Reviving the country’s derelict energy sector is a critical criterion
for the government’s top pledge for 2005 – expanding employment and
reviving the economy. In his February 2005 State of the Nation address,
President Mikheil Saakashvili named the power supply as “the biggest
failure of our government.” The Saakashvili administration has since
promised that 2006 will be the first year since 1992 without blackouts.
The only question for the central government -- and for Georgians
accustomed to life in the dark -- is how to make it happen. Many say
that Samegrelo could contain part of the answer.
The Enguri hydroelectric power station, built in 1984, straddles both
Georgian and Abkhazian territory, and supplies Georgia with half of its
energy production, or some 4.5 million kilowatt hours per year. Its dam,
800 meters long and 271.5 meters high, is the tallest “ arch dam” in the
world and the most massive structure in the Caucasus. The reservoir,
when full, has a maximum capacity of 1.1 billion cubic meters and is
capable of generating 1,300 megawatts per hour. (By comparison, the
Hoover Dam in Nevada can generate up to 2,080 megawatts.)
But today, Enguri produces just 40 percent of its potential system
output. Years of neglect and misuse have seriously affected its
condition and capabilities. Only four of the five Enguri generators
operate. Breakdowns are frequent. Since the end of the war with Abkhazia
in 1994, only one of an additional set of four generators, located in
Abkhazia and known as the Vardnili, have functioned; the other three
have “ drowned.”
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The situation, said Enguri Supervisory Board Director Misha Babukhadia,
is nothing short of “severe.”
“Everything needs rehabilitation,” Babukhadia continued. “The dam alone
is losing 500 million kilowatt hours of water through a broken stop
lock. That’s about one-quarter of Tbilisi’s annual energy consumption.
The pump station which extracts water that seeps into the foundation is
dysfunctional, and we don’t know exactly how much water is leaking from
the tunnel, but there are rumors that locals have set up homemade
turbines at leakage points.”
The station, originally intended for peak power supplies only, is being
asked to churn out more energy than ever was intended. The constant
changes in reservoir levels to supply the energy demanded have worn the
entire structure “down to its foundation,” Babukhadia said.
As a result, not only do Samegrelian villages go months without
electricity, but neighborhoods in central Zugdidi, the region’s main
town of 68,200, do as well -- a scenario consequently duplicated
throughout the rest of Georgia.
With $38.5 million from The European Bank for Reconstruction and
Development in hand for the job, the Saakashvili government planned to
put Enguri back on its feet this year -- and move Georgia toward a
reliable electricity supply. Under the rehabilitation plan, three of the
Enguri generators would be refurbished.
But the government has had to play its timing carefully. The brunt of
the repairs requires a three-month shutdown of the Enguri complex, while
water levels are low, in late winter. Coincidently, this is also when
electricity needs are the greatest – and tolerance for the additional
power shortages that Enguri officials say are likely to occur is at its
lowest. In early 2005, protests at ongoing blackouts and gas and
electricity shortages occurred in Samegrelo, as well as the neighboring
region of Ajaria, and Tbilisi.
So far, Enguri’s repair date has been twice rescheduled. An initial
date, March 26, was allegedly delayed so that the government could find
a reliable energy replacement. A second date, May 10, the final day of
US President George W. Bush’s visit to Georgia, has now been postponed
until 2006 – according to Babukhadia, to avoid the flooding of privately
owned lands that would occur if the complex were shut down in summer.
“Work will have to begin next year, at the end of February, ideally,”
Privatization has been reported to be one way the government is
considering more extensive repairs for Enguri, but Babukadia dismissed
the rumors, saying that the station’s political significance is too
With Enguri’s dam in Georgia and its generators in Abkhazia, both sides
are dependent on each other for energy and have little choice but to
cooperate. Forty percent of Enguri’s energy output goes to Abkhazia ,
yet the responsibility for maintenance is Georgia’ s. Furthermore, when
the plant closes for repairs, Georgia will import energy from Russia to
supply Abkhazia. All station employees, however, are ethnic Georgians
(local Mengrelians) with approximately 200 on the Georgian side of the
border and 500 in the predominantly Georgian district of Gali in
De facto Abkhazian President Sergei Bagapsh has guaranteed cooperation
for Enguri’s repairs, according to Enguri Dam Director Joni Chania. “We
have no problems with the Abkhaz here. They even give surplus energy to
Georgia. Remember, before the war, we were family.”
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Nonetheless, even if Enguri’s repair work proceeds, the added benefit to
Georgia will only be an estimated 30 percent increase in power supplies.
With Tbilisi and other regions also standing in line for more
electricity, residents of Samegrelo are unlikely to see substantial
Meanwhile, they rely on their own resourcefulness. A mind-boggling
melange of illegal lines hangs precariously over Zugdidi. One popular
power source is a relay station behind City Hall.
A so-called “commercial line” provides an additional option, but only to
those with the cash for average monthly bills of 20 lari (about $11).
The lines, spin-offs from the city’s two most reliable electricity
zones, Sectors 6 and 8, were first set up for businesses and state
institutions that paid a fee for meter installation and then paid
monthly bills, based on usage, for a relatively uninterrupted flow of
electricity. Private residents have since begun to subscribe, often
collaborating with neighbors for meter installation to defray set-up
But the commercial line is a solution only for Zugdidi residents. Its
future development depends on the reliability of the town’s electricity
source, Enguri. And as of now, officials responsible for the line are
not granting interviews about the possibility of expansion.
Cost is another factor. Even those residents who have subscribed to the
commercial line often can’ t afford to heat water, making cold baths
still a reality. Zugdidi’s general hospital reported in mid-April that
it had received uninterrupted electricity for 15 days from the
commercial line, but, due to the line’s higher cost, they switch to the
commercial electricity supply only once the public line has gone out.
Yet some Samegrelo residents see the for-profit line’s relative success
as a sign that energy could be made available on a regular basis if
residents would pay their bills.
At the general hospital in Zugdidi, though, four administrators laughed
at the idea of paying for electricity. ”Oh yes, I paid the bill once,”
one said, “ and the next day they shut me off. I had no electricity for
weeks. So why should I pay my bill?”
Those without access to the commercial line are even more pessimistic
about the chances of a return to 24-hour electricity.
Jambol, his wife, child and 20 other Abkhaz refugees have lived in an
abandoned elementary school for ten years. They share a common well,
three outhouses and an utterly substandard influx of electricity. “ So,
they fix Enguri, and what, we’ ll get more electricity?” Jambol said
under the weak glint of a single bulb, illegally connected by a copper
wire to an ambiguous source. “ We’ve been in the dark so long, what’s
Editor’s Note: Paul Rimple is a freelance writer based in Tbilisi.
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