Central Asia’s Coming Winter of Discontent
Central Asia’s Coming Winter of Discontent
War & Peace: Deconstructing Islamic State’s Appeal in Central Asia
War & Peace: Deconstructing Islamic State’s Appeal in Central Asia
Commentary / Europe & Central Asia 3 minutes

Central Asia’s Coming Winter of Discontent

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Germany and like-minded Western donors like Switzerland and the Netherlands have poured millions into trying to solve Central Asia’s chronic water problems. But Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan have wasted this opportunity. A new strategy is called for, both in the region and by those who would help it.

After more than two decades of political independence, millions of people still have inadequate access to clean water. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan face chronic energy shortages this winter, despite huge potential as producers of hydroelectric power. Water supplies have even triggered cross-border skirmishes in the Ferghana Valley. These have been limited so far. But they have the potential to trigger a chain reaction that brittle Central Asian governments would struggle to contain without significant loss of life.

Kyrgyzstan faces a grim winter, with water levels in a key reservoir so low that the country will be unable to make any electricity exports in 2015. The country’s meager budget struggles to buy power elsewhere. Rolling blackouts have begun, and Kyrgyz have been told to buy coal for heating their homes this winter. But 37 per cent of the population already lives in poverty and many are stuck in high-rise Soviet apartment blocks with no chance of an open fire. In impoverished Batken province, people are collecting firewood and animal dung to burn.

In Tajikistan, ordinary people often live with three hours of power a day or less while the lights in the Italianate palazzos of the political and economic elite glitter all year round. Such failure of basic services and falling living standards are fomenting anger. This adds up to a new threat to state stability at a time when Russia’s new assertiveness has rhetorically targeted its neighbour Kazakhstan as “not a state” and popular disillusionment is reflected in the growing number of Central Asians who have left to join the jihadis in Syria and Iraq.

Despite such looming dangers, regional states are not changing course. Previous water-sharing agreements, largely modeled on the Soviet-era arrangements dictated by Moscow, are ineffective. Irrigation-intensive cotton remains the Uzbek government’s main source of foreign currency. Upstream Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan and downstream Uzbekistan see each other not as partners managing a shared resource, but as opponents battling to secure mutually exclusive gains at the expense of their neighbours. There may be regular meetings and a slew of post-Soviet water-sharing agreements, none of which are legally binding, but Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are drifting ever further apart.

The Uzbek government, which halted gas exports to southern Kyrgyzstan in April 2014, has a history of using economic blockades to pressure its neighbours. Tashkent reckons that Bishkek and Dushanbe might be planning to do the same with water, and could take military action against new hydropower plants and reservoirs currently planned in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Uzbek President Islam Karimov has warned of war, and Western, Russian and local officials do not think he is bluffing.

The problem is not so much that there is not enough water, but how it is used. The outlines for an eventual deal that donors and the international community should press for are clear. Uzbekistan should convincingly promise to end the massive wastage and loss of water due to outdated irrigation methods and bad farming practices. At the same time, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan must commit to manage the proposed reservoirs of water in a responsible manner.

For their part, international donors must act to insist on prosecutions for the embezzlement of millions of euros in aid money for water projects. New projects should aim to work through the smallest, most local units of government possible. Continued funding of urban and rural water-supply projects should be contingent on the successful application of anti-corruption measures.

A new overall regional agreement on water will likely take a long time, however. As a start, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan should focus on more modest bilateral agreements on shared water. They should accelerate the long-running process of border delimitation and back away from confrontation in disputed areas. Cross-border infrastructure and water-management projects would also go some way to alleviating tensions in the Ferghana Valley.

If better bilateral agreements can be brokered, they could eventually form a platform for a regional one. The international community and donors should use all the leverage they have to persuade them to take this path, reverse the dynamics that might lead to armed conflict and lay the foundations of shared prosperity and equitable water supplies instead.

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