French energy company Total Eren is about to finalize the construction of a 100 megawatt solar farm in the Samarkand region of Uzbekistan. The project is funded by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the European Investment Bank, with total investments of over 65 million euros. However, locals who live just 100 meters from the project site continue to struggle with electricity shortages, water scarcity, and unemployment.
“We only have enough electricity for one bulb to let children do their homework in the evening. We have no fridge, washing machine or TV due to electricity scarcity. Sometimes, the school doesn’t work in the wintertime as there is insufficient electricity to heat it,” said a woman living in the Tutly settlement, just next to the recently constructed solar farm.
The women Bankwatch interviewed during a fact-finding mission in the area also said they have to pay for drinking water and gas delivered from another region, while having no permanent job or social assistance.
“I am divorced, and my sister’s husband works in Russia. He hasn’t been at home for two years. We live together to help with children and the household. We weave carpets and sell them at the local market for $30. But it takes months to make one. We really need this work at the solar farm,” said the woman.
The Darkest Place Is Next to the Solar Panels
The project is supposed to employ around 150 workers during construction and 24 people when the operation starts. However, during public consultations conducted in 2019, the company’s representatives could not provide answers to residents about how many people would be hired from the local community to work on the site. They also could not confirm whether or not the settlement would get electricity from the solar farm.
“Only three women are employed at the project for cleaning work. The rest are men and mainly from another settlement. We would like to get a job there, even for cleaning tasks,” said one of the women interviewed by Bankwatch.
During an online meeting that Bankwatch held with representatives of Tutly Solar LLC, a subsidiary of Total Eren, the company said it has a high share of women employees, including those in decision-making positions. However, exact data was not provided. Company representatives also confirmed that no professional training to enhance employment opportunities among local women has been considered.
No Risk Assessment, No Mitigation Measures, No Redress Mechanism
The project documentation doesn’t include any sex-segregated data to identify risks and effective mitigation measures. The only proposed strategy for addressing gender-based violence and harassment at the project site is by ensuring separate gender accommodation. But considering the small number of women employees and the influx of male workers, the risk of gender-based violence and harassment may increase for female residents.
Gender-specific issues aren’t addressed in the grievance redress mechanism either; the local authority or contractor is the only proposed entry point for filing a complaint. Considering the existing power imbalance and nepotism in Uzbekistan, this mechanism won’t serve its purpose, especially for women.
To mitigate such risks, international banks like the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the European Investment Bank need to consider the specific contexts in the countries they invest in. In Uzbekistan, the gender gap, which is even wider in rural regions than in urban ones, is coupled with a democratic deficit and limited space for freedom of expression and protection of human rights. For example, public consultations with project-affected people as well as stakeholder engagement in such a context require much more effort to create a safe space for dialogue. However, the project documentation doesn’t contain any information on how many women were engaged in public consultations, what concerns they raised, and how they were addressed.
When I went to the project site to take a picture, speak to the local people, and collect information on biodiversity risks, we were questioned by the local administration, who referred to a call about us they received from the State Security Service. It simply confirmed the risks for those who may want to question the project.
Total Eren informed Bankwatch of the funding it provided to local authorities to buy two additional production transformers for the settlement. The company also committed to repairing a roof for the local school. However, the provision of drinking water for residents is still under discussion, and the installation of decentralized solar panels for the settlement and school has never even been considered.
Solar energy may be a great solution to the climate change problem, but local communities must benefit first. At the end of the day, those who need clean energy the most might remain without it.