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The U.N. Security Council Finally Considers Weighing In on Climate Security
The U.N. Security Council Finally Considers Weighing In on Climate Security
Report 233 / Europe & Central Asia

Water Pressures in Central Asia

Growing tensions in the Ferghana Valley are exacerbated by disputes over shared water resources. To address this, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan urgently need to step back from using water or energy as a coercive tool and focus on reaching a series of modest, bilateral agreements, pending comprehensive resolution of this serious problem.

Executive Summary

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Central Asia has increased by almost ten million since 2000, and limited arable land is being depleted by over-use and outdated farming methods.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 The concerns Crisis Group identified in 2002 – inadequate infrastructure, poor water management and outdated irrigation methods – remain unaddressed, while the security environment is bleaker.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.

Op-Ed / Global

The U.N. Security Council Finally Considers Weighing In on Climate Security

Originally published in World Politics Review

The United Nations Security Council may be about to pass its first-ever resolution on the implications of climate change for peace and security. The council has talked about climate security since 2007, and it has acknowledged that environmental challenges such as droughts and degradation of farming land can fuel conflicts in regions like the Sahel and the Horn of Africa. But it has not laid out a systematic approach to assessing these risks or responding to them.

This could be about to change, as Niger and Ireland—two elected members of the council—plan to table a resolution on climate security this week. The draft asks U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to prepare a global study of climate security risks. It also encourages U.N. peace operations to pay more attention to these threats. These are quite tentative steps, but they would put the U.N.’s treatment of climate security on a sounder footing.

Coming after the underwhelming outcome of last month’s Glasgow summit on climate change, a Security Council resolution on the topic would also offer an encouraging signal about multilateral institutions’ capacity to respond to global warming. Yet the resolution could still fall victim to major power tensions at the U.N., as China and Russia may block it.

The proposed resolution enjoys widespread support among council members. Germany convened talks on a similar text last year, but shelved it when the climate-skeptical Trump administration promised to veto it. This year, the Biden administration indicated it would support a resolution. This encouraged Ireland and Niger to lead discussions on a new draft, with help from Norway and Kenya. Twelve of the 15 council members back the resolution.

Council members say that it is important that their African colleagues have led the charge on the resolution. Nigerien and Kenyan officials have been clear that they see climate change as threatening their national security, making it hard for its opponents to say it is unnecessary.

A chorus of other states inside and outside the council have flagged their support. Small island states have been vocal about the threat of rising seas to their existence, and Vietnam organized an informal council discussion of sea level rise last month ahead of the Glasgow summit.

Yet the resolution has had powerful opponents. China and Russia have voiced doubts about the proposal. India, an elected member of the council, has also been dismissive. The three skeptics say that there is still not enough evidence of the links between climate change and conflict to warrant a Security Council resolution. They also argue that the council risks trespassing on topics that other multilateral bodies, such as the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, or UNFCC, should handle.

Some other major non-Western economies have flagged similar concerns, perhaps because they worry that the Security Council could one day start interfering in their industrial policies, even if the current resolution does nothing to lay the groundwork for such a move. Indonesia and South Africa, which held council seats in 2019 and 2020, refused to back Germany’s initial effort to develop a resolution. Brazil, which will join the body in January, has indicated that it doesn’t consider the current draft resolution a priority.

Niger holds the rotating presidency of the council in December and wants agreement on a resolution before a high-level council meeting on Dec. 9, which the country’s president will chair. Backers of the resolution argue that China’s position will be crucial. Diplomats note that their Chinese counterparts have couched their criticisms of the initiative in quite moderate terms. They suspect that Beijing is worried about the reputational damage of blocking a resolution that enjoys broad international backing.

China gained credit in Glasgow by agreeing to a joint statement with the U.S. on the two powers’ continued commitment to cooperation in containing global warming. Beijing could see similar advantages in acquiescing to the Security Council resolution, especially as it enjoys U.S. support. If China backs the text or abstains on it, rather than vetoing it, Russia might also let it pass, to avoid a rupture with its main ally at the U.N. If neither Beijing nor Moscow is willing to use its veto, India will not be able to stop the resolution from passing.

Without an overall framework to guide its work and generate momentum, the council’s engagement on climate matters will remain haphazard and advance more slowly.

How important is this resolution? If either China or Russia does choose to block the initiative, those council members that worry about climate security will not give up on the topic. They can continue trying to insert references to climate-related threats into the texts of the mandates of individual U.N. peacekeeping missions and political offices. Germany and Niger launched an informal council working group on climate security last year to discuss such issues. Yet without an overall framework to guide its work and generate momentum, the council’s engagement on climate matters will remain haphazard and advance more slowly.

If, on the other hand, the resolution passes, it could spur efforts inside and outside the U.N. to come to grips with the challenges of climate security. As a point of comparison, Security Council Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security—passed in 2000—has acted as the basis for policy debates about gender and conflict for over two decades. The U.N., other multilateral organizations and concerned governments have a lot of work to do to grasp how processes associated with climate change, such as desertification and forced migration, will influence future conflicts.

If the Security Council can spark more thinking on these themes, the resolution will be worthwhile. In the short term, it could also make the Security Council look a little more relevant to international debates about the climate crisis. All too often, the council seems to be trapped in sterile and unproductive debates about conflicts, like the war in Syria, that it is unable to solve. A climate security resolution would not resolve those arguments. But it would be an opportunity for the council to show that it can adapt to evolving global threats.


UN Director
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Pyotr Kurzin
Former Crisis Group UN Assistant