ROGUN -- Tajik President Emomali Rahmon Friday (November 16) inaugurated what is expected to be the world's tallest hydro-electric power plant.
The $3.9 billion project will turn Tajikistan into a key power producer in Central Asia, enabling the impoverished country to eliminate domestic energy shortages and export electricity to Afghanistan and Pakistan.
In a colourful ceremony in the Pamir Mountains, Rahmon 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," he said 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 glory!" went one of the songs.
Transforming the Tajik economy
World Bank Vice President for Europe and Central Asia Cyril Muller said at the ceremony that Rogun Dam would "help transform Tajikistan's economy, and create the foundation for a prosperous future".
The power plant is expected to provide up to 3,600MW -- 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 9 million inhabitants, 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 when completed, becoming the world's tallest hydro-electric 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, Rahmon climbed into a bulldozer at a groundbreaking for the dam, in a sign of the president's attachment to the scheme. Tajikistan raised $500 million in 2017 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 lives a civil war in the 1990s.
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 geographer at the University of Reading in the United Kingdom, told AFP.
But Rahmon sought to ease some of these concerns Friday, noting that "all necessary norms" had been observed.