The division of water resources is a key problem in Central Asia and some steps have been taken to resolve this issue.
For instance, there are bilateral agreements between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan but the issue cannot be dealt with adequately unless all the five countries of Central Asia – Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan – sit together and reach consensus. Barring that, there is the potential for conflict in the foreseeable future.
Central Asia is one of the water-scarce regions of the world. At the same time inside the CAR the water balance is distributed very unevenly. Two states – Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, in the upper reaches of the rivers are water rich, while Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, as the main consumers of water resources, are not so fortunate. On the other hand, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are energy-deficient countries.
The water-energy distribution equation determined the water management system in the Soviet times: the upper riparian countries received the missing energy to them, and the lower riparian countries received water in exchange. The scheme was simple. In Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan in the winter water was accumulated in the reservoirs of Nurek, Toktogul and Kairakkum and in summer it was dumped for irrigation of arable land in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. In exchange for this in winter Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan received electricity and gas.
However, such a barter exchange system collapsed with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Countries have moved to market relations. And, as a consequence, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan saw themselves slide to unequal conditions. After all, if the electricity they bought for the money, the water had to be given for free. The water-energy balance was lost.
It is natural that the reaction of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan was the desire to ensure their own energy security through the construction of the Rogun (on the Vakhsh River) and Dashtijum HPP (on the river Panj) in Tajikistan and Kambarata two (on the Naryn River) in Kyrgyzstan. This, of course, elicited strong protests from the main water consumer in the region – Uzbekistan. Tashkent seriously feared that the Kambarata and Rogun projects violate international law and will result in the reduction of its access to water, and as a result, can cause significant ecological and economic damage. — Environmental – the reduction of the already low water inflow from the Uzbek side of the Aral Sea. Economic – the loss of Uzbekistan in cotton cultivation – the main water consuming crop of the country.
However, there is another aspect – the HPP (Hydel Power Projects) built in Kyrgyzstan, and more particularly in Tajikistan, will compete with the export of Uzbek electricity to power-hungry South Asian markets.
Interestingly, in spite of his perturbation, Tashkent is not trying to sit at the negotiating table and find a mutually acceptable balance of interests.
However, if there are negotiations in the region today, they are more on a bilateral basis between the states. Although each side understands that in order to achieve a reasonable distribution of interests and schemes of water-use benefits at the negotiating table there should be the presence of all the participants. That is, all five Central Asian states.
There is one important thing: the quality of the water use in the region. The lower riparian countries, with the use of water conservation technologies and techniques, can curtail their water consumption considerably. The Central Asian states use more water per capita than the people in any other region in the world. Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, because of sizeable cotton crops, need to consume lots of water. This can be cut down with the help of a mix of conservation measures and better technologies.
Kazakhstan, being at the tail end of water resources, is one of the countries using sensible approaches to water consumption. Despite the declining annual flow in the Syr Darya from Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan has managed to restore the northern part of the Aral Sea. In the southern regions of the country drip irrigation is quite prevalent now. In addition, Kazakhstan has managed to reach an agreement with Kyrgyzstan on the interchange of electricity “at a conventional price.” In August, Kyrgyzstan gives energy to Kazakhstan, and in the fall – gets it back. At the same time, in the Uch-Kurgkanskoy HPP water releases are made to the tune of 350 cubic meters/sec for the agricultural needs of Kazakhstan.
Thus, the barter system has in fact been restored in this relationship: water in exchange for energy. Energy recovery from Kazakhstan not only saves the favorable volume of Toktogul reservoir for the autumn and winter, but most importantly, corrects the water and energy balance. (It is noteworthy that for the first time in the negotiations between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan both energy and water were discussed simultaneously).
Oddly enough, a similar approach has not yet been used in Uzbek talks with neighboring states. Tashkent prefers showdown through notes of protest or military operations. As it recently occurred in the Ungar-Too area in the Jalal-Abad region of Kyrgyzstan, police from both sides increased the number of stationed troops. Border tensions between the neighbors fueled the unresolved dispute over rights to use Ortho-Tokoy (or Kasansay as it is called in Uzbekistan) reservoir, which supplies water to both republics. Built during the Soviet years the reservoir has been the object of dispute between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan since the countries gained independence.
It is possible that similar conflicts are waiting for Tashkent and Dushanbe – Tajikistan today is in active implementation of the project for the construction of the Rogun hydropower plant. Tashkent does not like it.
In order to avoid reaching a point where some kind of war for resources may erupt, the whole region would need to sit down around the negotiation table. For this to happen, there should be the total recognition that all of them are independent countries now, and there should also be the ability to see the benefit in complement each other’s needs and abilities. This is the only way the whole region can develop together.
One way to do this is to establish the Union of Central Asian states, by whatever name, in whatever format. This idea is under discussion, one way or the other, for the last several years. It will not only restore the water and energy balance but will also serve as a solid platform for the benefit of the entire region.