The descent into hell of Ekibastouz, a city of around 150,000 inhabitants in the north of this Central Asian country, illustrates the consequences that massive power cuts can have in the middle of winter, when several European nations fear energy shortages due to the war in Ukraine.
Images broadcast by the Kazakh media showed stalactites forming in apartments, while chilled residents burned what they found in the street to warm themselves in the freezing cold.
Teams of workers worked day and night to repair the pipes that had burst under the effect of the frost, heating jerry cans with blowtorches to prevent their contents from freezing.
A huge labor camp where Solzhenitsyn was imprisoned
The authorities announced on Thursday the end of a state of emergency, decreed on November 28, the day after a malfunction in a thermal power plant, which deprived several districts of power and heating.
If the situation is gradually improving, the ordeal of Ekibastouz, which was during the Stalinist terror a huge labor camp where the famous writer and Soviet dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn was imprisoned, aroused national anger.
The popular singer Dimach Koudaïbergen (3.8 million subscribers on Instagram), claimed that those responsible for this drama “serve their sentence in a prison without heating” and thus pay for the “tears of the mothers who remained in the street”.
System dating from Khrushchev
Faced with the discontent on social networks, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, who was almost overthrown almost a year ago by deadly riots, dismissed the local governor and dispatched several senior officials on the spot.
Heaters and blankets were sent from all over Kazakhstan. And even in neighboring Kyrgyzstan, where the energy situation is hardly more enviable, funds have been collected in support.
This episode adds to an already long list of accidents in thermal infrastructure in Kazakhstan, a country five times the size of France. “The first time is a fluke, the second a coincidence, and the third the rule,” says Jakyp Khairushev, an electrical engineer and business executive.
Inherited from the Soviet Union, the energy system remains dilapidated, despite investments. According to the government, the average age of thermal power plants is 61 years, which harkens back to a time when Nikita Khrushchev ruled the USSR. According to Jakyp Khaïrouchev, “more than 1,000 emergency shutdowns of thermal power plants took place in 2022, i.e. nearly 75,000 hours”.
A vicious circle
In this respect, President Tokayev deplored that Kazakhstan, rich in hydrocarbons, is “one of the most energy-intensive countries in the world” and has to import electricity, in particular from Russia.
But this sharp increase in energy consumption leads to a vicious circle because, to satisfy it, factories must operate at full capacity, which increases the risk of accidents.
According to the engineer Khaïrouchev, the explosion, in recent years, in Kazakhstan, of mining of cryptocurrencies, with very greedy computers, has accentuated the tension on the system.
Forced to react, President Tokayev now says he is considering the nationalization of certain assets, 22 of the 37 thermal power stations belonging to the private sector.
With the means at hand
And if the government dumped on the owner of the Ekibastouz power plant, the oligarch Alexander Klebanov, the 15th richest man in Kazakhstan according to Forbes, he passed the ball back to him. He indeed assured to have “already alerted the government of the non-profitability of the plant” and invokes “the impossibility of increasing the tariffs”, which is the responsibility of the authorities.
For Jakyp Khaïrouchev, “without urgent measures, such as the increase in prices, unfortunately, this type of accident will not be uncommon”. While waiting for the construction of new power stations, in particular via partnerships with foreign countries, there will be no other choice than to make do with the means at hand to get through the winter.
letelegramme Fr Trans