SANGTUDA, Tajikistan Dec 15 (Reuters) - Tajikistan, hit by severe power shortages, started damming a major mountain river on Friday to build a new hydroelectric plant as it seeks to secure steady energy supplies.
The $500 million, 670 megawatt Sangtuda-1 plant, which Tajikistan is building with Russian electricity monopoly Unified Energy System (UES) EESR.RTS, is due to start producing electricity next year and reach full capacity in 2009.
"(The plant) will help Tajikistan cover its domestic energy deficit," said Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov after engineers used a series of landmine explosions to block the Vakhsh river.
The mountainous former Soviet nation, which has some of the world's largest hydro resources, has long experienced electricity shortages.
This year shortages were particularly severe due to supply disruptions at the key Soviet-era Nurek hydro plant, also on the Vakhsh river, which supplies most of the country's electricity.
The shortage has caused blackouts across the impoverished Muslim nation, which borders Afghanistan.
Tajikistan's electricity-heavy Tajik Aluminium Smelter, which accounts for two-thirds of the country's hard currency earnings, has not been affected by the shortages, officials said.
The Sangtuda plant will produce 2.7 billion kilowatt hours a year after it reaches full capacity, officials said. A UES subsidiary will own 75 percent of the plant, and the Tajik government will control the rest.
Experts believe Tajikistan has the potential to produce up to 520 billion kWh a year.
The country is still recovering from civil war in the 1990s, which ruined its economy and left 100,000 people dead.