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Fire over water in Central Asia

19 aprile 2009

By Umida Hashimova (04/08/2009 issue of the CACI Analyst)

The common Soviet plan for regional water and energy sharing, exchange and management disappeared with the independence of individual republics. The break up of the Soviet Union divided the Central Asian countries into those controlling water upstream and those that depended on them downstream. So far, failure to agree on the distribution of water among these states has resulted in exerting political and economic pressure on one another, sometimes to situations almost escalating into interstate armed conflict. Unless the countries will become equally open for negotiations, ready to compromise and to manage the issue through a regional perspective rather from those of individual countries, water issues will not be solved by either third countries or by international interventions.

BACKGROUND: With independence in 1991 came the issue of water allocation in Central Asia, which was earlier strictly regulated by Moscow. The glacial water sources in the region are located geographically in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan while the other three countries (Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan) are downstream. Abundant arable lands in downstream countries compared to abundant mountainous areas in upstream countries (93 percent of Tajik territory and 65 percent of Kyrgyz territory comprise of the Pamirs and Tien Shan mountains) defined these countries as agrarian societies, in particular Uzbekistan. Therefore, the Soviet command economy would order the upstream countries to collect water in their dams to be released downstream in spring and summer during irrigation periods. In return, the downstream countries rich in fossil fuels (especially gas, oil and coal) were ordered to provide the upstream countries with these natural resources and electricity, which they did not possess. Soviet managers, not foreseeing the future break-up of the Soviet Union, also saw no need to alter the status quo.

From the year 2000, disputes started taking place between the upstream and downstream countries almost every year. The upstream countries complain that the price for gas and electricity that they used to receive free of charge is now too high. Moreover, they say that the payment for the maintenance of the dams by the downstream countries is not covering the work that has to be done every year. The downstream countries, in their turn, complain that the amount of irrigation water released from the dams of the upstream countries is decreasing year by year and does not reach some fields, resulting in lost crops. Besides, due to unpaid fuel and electricity debts by the upstream countries, the downstream countries stop supplying fossil fuels to upstream countries, leaving Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan without electricity and gas from time to time during winter, the period of greatest need for them. To produce their own electricity the upstream countries have to release water from their dams which results in winter flooding of some Uzbek farms and less water for irrigation in spring-summer.

To escape from the annual disputes and to have an independent energy infrastructure, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are planning to build more dams to produce electricity both to meet their own energy demands and sell it to Pakistan, Iran, and India. The three downstream countries are opposed to this idea, because their economies heavily rely on cotton, wheat and rice, which without the water coming from the upstream countries will be impossible to grow. Thus, at the moment the Central Asian countries are locked in seemingly endless disagreement. Attempts to resolve the issue since 1991 so far failed. In the framework of regional water management four intergovernmental treaties were signed and one draft agreement was prepared. The provisions of the treaties have failed to resolve the real issues or remained paper agreements only.

IMPLICATIONS: Although no major conflict has broken out in the region over the water issue, the possibility that it could escalate into an armed conflict cannot be neglected. In particular, conflicts on a smaller level have already been registered. Thus, in 2000, Uzbekistan carried out military exercises at the border with Kyrgyzstan, with the seeming objective of practicing for capturing the Toktogul Reservoir, located on Kyrgyz territory but used by Uzbekistan to irrigate fields in Fergana valley. This action was a response by Uzbekistan to Kyrgyzstan’s flooding of farm fields, while opening the dam to produce additional electricity for its population. In March 2008, 150 Tajik residents of Isfara crossed the border into Kyrgyz territory to try to destroy a dam that cut them off from water sources. The dam was reopened later, after the Tajik side had to retreat due to armed threats by Kyrgyz border guards.

These cases demonstrate how armed conflicts in the region over the water issue are a real possibility. In addition, the human and natural causes in combination with population growth in the region could further contribute to tensions. First, water deficiency will grow year by year due to inefficient and wasteful management of water resources and high natural evaporation because of abundant arid and semi-arid lands. Second, scientists from the region report that the mountains in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan will lose most of their glaciers by 2020 due to global warming. Third, the WTO reports that under the conditions of global climate change, by 2030 the Central Asian countries will need additional water resources.

The situation developing over the water issue since the beginning of 2009 has not shown any improvement, especially in Uzbek-Kyrgyz relations. Kyrgyzstan is about to receive a US$1.7 billion project from Russia to build the Kambar-Ata 1 hydroelectric power station. The station will be located upstream from the Toktogul reservoir and will leave the Uzbek part of Fergana valley without water. According to some analysts, this project will give Russia political weight to control water in the region. The Uzbek President has already expressed his discontent over the involvement of third parties and called for resolving the issue among the Central Asian countries themselves.

Tajikistan also has a plan to build a hydroelectric power station (Rogun) that possibly will affect the northern territories of Uzbekistan. Nevertheless, the relationship between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, which was the most complicated in the region due to border controversies, has begun to improve. On February 19, 2009, at the culmination point of Tajik-Uzbek energy disputes, the Uzbek side resumed the supply of electricity. A high-level delegation from Uzbekistan flew to Dushanbe to agree on the delimitation and demarcation of 97 percent of the two countries’ 1,200 kilometer shared border. Regular air flights between the capitals of the two countries, which were suspended 17 years ago, are now planned to resume. It is hoped that resolution of these issues will also lead to a peaceful resolution of the water issues between these two neighboring countries.

CONCLUSIONS: Until now, the failure of the Central Asian countries to compromise with one another on the water issue plus other territorial disagreements and political competition have not allowed them to escape from the vicious cycle of disagreements. Only when all the countries in the region will have a unified agenda regarding water use, which will take into account the plans and needs of their neighbors, will the tensions be defused. The words of Uri Shamir, a hydrologist from Israel, are very much applicable to the Central Asian situation: “If there is a political will for peace, water is not an obstacle. If someone wants to find a reason to fight, water gives you a lot of opportunities”. His words in the Central Asian context should be taken as a warning and an incentive to prevent such outcomes.

AUTHOR’S BIO: Umida Hashimova is an independent analyst in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.

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