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Homepage > Regions / Countries > Asia > Central Asia > Water Pressures in Central Asia

Water Pressures in Central Asia

Europe and Central Asia Report N°233 11 Sep 2014

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY AND RECOMMENDATIONS

Water has long been a major cause of conflict in Central Asia. Two states – Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan – have a surplus; the other three say they do not get their share from the region’s great rivers, the Syr Darya and Amu Darya, which slice across it from the Tien Shan, Pamir Mountains, and the Hindu Kush to the Aral Sea’s remains. Pressures are mounting, especially in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. The population in Central Asia has increased by almost ten million since 2000, and limited arable land is being depleted by over-use and outdated farming methods. Extensive corruption and failing infrastructure take further toll, while climate change is likely to have long-term negative consequences. As economies become weaker and states more fragile, heightened nationalism, border disputes, and regional tensions complicate the search for a mutually acceptable solution to the region’s water needs. A new approach that addresses water and related issues through an interlocking set of individually more modest bilateral agreements instead of the chimera of a single comprehensive one is urgently needed.

The root of the problem is the disintegration of the resource-sharing system the Soviet Union imposed on the region until its collapse in 1991. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan provided water to Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan in summer and received Kazakh, Turkmen and Uzbek coal, gas and electricity in winter. The system had broken down by the late-1990s, and a plethora of bilateral and regional agreements and resolutions concluded in that decade failed to fix it. The concerns Crisis Group identified in 2002 – inadequate infrastructure, poor water management and outdated irrigation methods – remain unaddressed, while the security environment is bleaker.

Regional leaders seem disinclined to cooperate on any of their main problems. Suspicion is growing between the most directly affected countries, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Personal relations between Tajik President Emomali Rahmon and Uzbek President Islam Karimov have been icy for years, and Karimov and his ministers are increasingly prone to make bellicose statements. International partners, including Russia, the European Union (EU) and the U.S., say they can do little if the countries remain fixated on a narrow interpretation of national interests. Differences over upstream hydropower projects require intensive, high-level resolution. Though some localised efforts to improve water supply have worked, usually with donor aid, corruption has undermined more ambitious ones. Yet, the failure of the Kyrgyz, Tajik and Uzbek governments to modernise water-dependent sectors such as energy and agriculture increases their mutual dependence.

For all its complexity, the water issue is probably the one that offers some opportunity for solution. As a Swiss water specialist observed, “water can be a driver of conflict but it can also be a driver of peace”. It is an objective problem, and equitable distribution and a concomitant energy exchange would produce tangible benefits for all. Removal of the water factor from the more intractable problems of borders and enclaves, meanwhile, might mitigate conflicts and perhaps even help solve them. Improved water infrastructure and management projects could thus be crucial for building peace and political stability, while promoting development and economic growth.

Attempts at comprehensive regional solutions have foundered on mistrust. Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan (and their international backers) should act now in the border areas of the Ferghana Valley to end the annual cycle of competition and conflict over water by dividing the water issue into more manageable portions – seeking gradual, step-by-step solutions along conceptual and geographical lines rather than one all-inclusive resource settlement. If Uzbekistan will not participate, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan should work bilaterally. Meanwhile, high-level mediation should be sought to address Uzbekistan’s objections to upstream hydropower projects.

There is no guarantee this would work, but it could give these three states an opportunity to modernise infrastructure and the management of water resources as well as train a new generation of technical specialists. The agreements would also set a modest precedent for other spheres in which cooperation is sorely needed and might help defuse tensions in the region, while improving the grim living conditions of most of its population.

RECOMMENDATIONS

To develop a modern, corruption-free, and efficient water management system in the region firewalled from other disputes between Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan

To the governments of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, the UN and the donor community, including Russia, the European Union (EU) and China:

1.  Recognise that the Syr Darya and Amu Darya rivers should be the subject of separate water-sharing agreements.

2.  Promote and mediate individual bilateral water and energy sharing agreements between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan and Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, pending a comprehensive agreement on their management.

To the donor community, including Russia, the EU and China:

3.  Expand infrastructure modernisation programs:

a) in urban areas regarding water meters and improved sanitation; and

b) in agricultural areas regarding modern techniques such as drip irrigation.

4.  Prioritise water issues at the highest levels of engagement with the Kyrgyz, Tajik and Uzbek governments and use international and local media to publicise the need for progress.

5.  Work with the smallest units of government, or directly with local communities, to mitigate corruption; and make further funding conditional on the implementation of anti-corruption measures.

6.  Build energy sector reform, including anti-corruption measures, into financing plans for large hydropower projects.

To the governments of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan:

7.  Commit to resolving border demarcation problems without using water or energy as a coercive factor; facilitate cross-border cooperation between police forces and form a tripartite intra-regional council to oversee day-to-day management of water and land resources parallel to high-level border delimitation negotiations.

8.  Investigate and prosecute corruption and misuse of donor money.

9.  Embark on large-scale public education programs highlighting the extent of water wastage.

10.  Ask donors to design and implement cross-border economic development projects focusing on border and enclave issues, including the management and maintenance of shared water resources for agriculture.

Bishkek/Brussels, 11 September 2014

 
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