A plan to export electricity looks cursed ...WAR in Afghanistan, corruption and regional rivalries: until recently these were the main hurdles to a $1.2 billion, American-backed project to send surplus electricity from Central Asia to energy-hungry Afghanistan and Pakistan. Now comes another: there is unlikely to be any surplus electricity. ... The concept, first aired eight years ago, was simple. In summer, when Afghanistan and Pakistan most need electricity, melting snow fills hydropower reservoirs beyond capacity in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. The idea was to harness the spillover, generating electricity to send south along a transmission line to needier places (see map). In winter, as rivers freeze and both former Soviet republics themselves face dire electricity shortages, all the electricity generated would be kept at home. ... But in the years since Western governments mooted the 1,200-kilometre (750-mile) power line, known as CASA-1000, electricity shortages in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have worsened. This summer, to conserve water in readiness for the winter, Kyrgyzstan is actually importing electricity from Tajikistan.
Successful empires and kingdoms are good at building infrastructure and sharpening the best ideas. The inscription along the magnificent colonnade above the James A Farley building in central Manhattan, the largest post office in the United States, reads: ‘Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.’ Herodotus wrote the words 2,500 years ago, to describe the ancient Persians – who were always on the lookout for innovative technologies and ideas that made it easier to administer their great empire. Getting messages quickly and reliably from A to B in the ancient world was no less important than it is today. ... The instant communications made possible by recent technological changes should not make us susceptible to the breathless commentary about globalisation as something new. For more than two millennia, news and information, goods and products, ideas and beliefs have flowed through networks linking the Pacific coast of China with the Atlantic coasts of North Africa and Europe, the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf with the Mediterranean and Scandinavia. Since the late 19th century, these networks have been known as the Silk Roads. ... We are witnessing the world’s centre of gravity return to the axis on which it spun for millennia. When viewed from the vantage point of the Silk Roads, the familiar narrative begins to quiver, history itself begins to shift. In fact, to understand the world, the best place to look is not in the centre of the West nor in the heart of the East, but on the old Silk Road where the two come together. ... Most scholars have neglected these networks for three reasons. First, they challenge the familiar, triumphalist story of the rise of the West. Second, historians today work in crowded and competitive fields requiring increasingly narrow and precise specialisations. ... Finally, there’s the simple fact that Western scholars’ ability to follow historical connections can be limited by the lack of knowledge of central Asian languages.