Averting Eurasian Water Wars: The View from Uzbekistan


2012-10-14 by Richard Weitz

With climate change comes conflict.  The collapse of the Soviet Union left in its wake a serious fault line in Eur-Asia revolving around water and its scarcity.

This security issue arose during my week-long visit to Uzbekistan last month and deserves a serious look.

Uzbekistani officials and analysts consider having adequate access to fresh water a national security priority. The next U.S. administration might consider launching a higher-profile initiative in this domain as part of the post-Afghanistan restructuring of U.S. diplomacy in the region. Credit Image: Bigstock

Like other Central Asian countries, Uzbekistan has suffered serious water shortages in recent years, but Uzbekistan suffers from being one of the world’s few doubly land-locked states.

Uzbekistani officials and analysts consider having adequate access to fresh water a national security priority.

One water management issue of great concern to Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan is the fate of the Aral Sea, which borders both countries.

Since the 1960s, poorly planned and executed Soviet irrigation projects, primarily for fertilizing cotton production, have diverted water from its main tributaries, the Amu Darya and Syr Darya Rivers. The decreased inflows, worsened by rising demands for water due to population growth, could not compensate for natural evaporation. The water level of the Aral Sea fell dramatically while its surface area shrunk to less than one quarter of its original size. By the late 1980s, the Aral Sea had split into a small lake in the north and a larger water body in the south [See picture below].

The rapidly decreasing surface area and the increase in the salinity of the water has deprived many fisherman of their livelihood, killed or endangered several unique animal and plant species, decreased crop yields, killed forestry, increased ecological harmful atmospheric dust that adversely affects people’s health, and created eerie images of rusting fishing boats situated in the middle of arid deserts.

The Amu and Syr Darya deltas, where some four million people live, are threatened by desertification, poor drinking water, dust storms, and additional environmental threats.

Numerous international actors have been engaged on this issue.

These have included the World Bank, several bodies affiliated with the United Nations, the OSCE, and national governments including the United States. The five Central Asian governments created the International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea (IFAS) in 1993. Each of them contributes funding from their state budgets to the fund, whose managers also seek third-party support. The IFAS, which in 1997 incorporated other Aral Sea intergovernmental bodies, uses these funds to support projects to rehabilitate the Aral Sea Basin, promote socioeconomic development, improve the health of the region’s inhabitants, increase conservation and water use efficiency, and protect the environment.

The projected effects of climate change suggest Central Asia could see further water shortages—already a perennial problem in western Uzbekistan—that will adversely affect the region’s economies and potentially lead to water-related conflicts.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a UN affiliated body, has led efforts to develop climate change models applicable to Central Asia and other regions. Its scientists have also discussed potential means of limiting and responding to climate change.

Credit: Wikepedia 

Another problem concerns the lack of an effective region-wide mechanism for managing Central Asian water supplies, which the International Crisis Group, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and other expert groups have warned could worsen regional resource conflicts.

During the Soviet period, the USSR State Planning Committee established annual water usage quotas for the five Central Asian republics. The Soviet authorities also treated the five Central Asian economies as an integrated network. They instructed the upstream republics of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to store excess water in winter and then release it in summer to the downstream countries of Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. The latter republics would use the water to support agriculture and cotton harvesting while compensating the upstream republics with fuel supplies (especially gas and coal) distributed through Soviet central government institutions.

The USSR’s demise–which abruptly transformed the USSR’s administrative boundaries into more rigorous national boundaries–has resulted in each newly independent Central Asia republic pursuing autonomous water policies that do not always reflect the interests of other countries.

For example, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, which lack the abundant hydrocarbon resources of the other Central Asian states, have diverted more water for hydropower to generate electricity for their own uses, leading to summer water shortages in the downstream countries.

Although the five governments signed the 1992 Almaty Agreement, which essentially maintained the Soviet-era water quotas, adherence to this agreement has weakened over time. Afghanistan was also excluded from the accord, and its government now wants greater respect for its interests.

The main source of water-related tension among Central Asian countries is that Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan use Central Asian water supplies primarily to irrigate crops as well as for direct consumption.

In contrast, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan seek to convert the region’s water resources into electricity, which strengthens their energy and economic independence, and can also help them earn foreign revenue when they sell excess electricity to neighboring countries.

Moscow has also been involved since the republics have sought to lobby the Russian government, which has periodically offered to fund some of these projects, to support their position.

Credit: Wikipedia

At their most recent summit in early September 2012, Uzbekistani President Islam Karimov and Kazakhstani President Nursultan Nazarbayev made a public demarche on the subject. In statements at a joint press conference, they insisted that all Central Asian countries that use transnational rivers would have to consent to the construction of dams or other hydro-power facilities. They also proposed that an expert group be formed to investigate the issue and offer recommendations in accordance with relevant UN conventions.

The issue of most acute concern to Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan is the planned construction of Rogun Dam in neighboring Tajikistan.

Soviet engineers designed this 335-meter (1,000-feet) high structure (the world’s highest dam) in the 1970s to manage water flows throughout much of Central Asia. Construction began in 1982 but then halted with the USSR’s breakup. The Soviet Union’s disintegration also increased tensions among the formerly unified Central Asian republics.

Tajikistani authorities see the dam as essential for exploiting their main national resource (hydropower) for electricity generation, economic growth, and energy security and independence. The dam is expected to generate some 13 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity each year, enough to make Tajikistan a major regional energy exporter.

Uzbekistani analysts fear that it would disrupt their water supplies and least make them dependent on Dushanbe’s goodwill, since the dam would enable Tajikistan to control the flow of the Vakhsh River, which is a major tributary of the Amu Darya River, which feeds into Uzbekistan’s irrigation canals.

Uzbekistan does not want Tajikistan to start building or diverting water for the dam until the World Bank completes its feasibility studies assessing the technical, economic, environmental, and social impact of the project. Until then, Tashkent has used economic pressure to delay the project. Uzbekistan has discouraged potential foreign investors from supporting the dam, blocked the transit of Kyrgyz and Turkmen electricity through its power grid to Tajikistan, impeded the movement of rail freight into Tajikistan, and disrupted natural gas deliveries to Tajikistan.

These moves have harmed Tajikistan’s economic development and encouraged Tajikistani leaders to exploit anti-Uzbek sentiment among Tajiks.

Relations between the two countries have been strained for at least a decade. There are periodic exchanges of fire along their 1283-kilometer common border. In an effort to curb illegal immigration and possible terrorist infiltration, Uzbekistan mined parts of the border in the early 2000s. Commercial ties are further weakened due to the lack of air transportation and the visa regime between the two countries.

But most recent popular attention has focused on the dam issue. With both governments’ encouragement, building the dam has become a question of national pride and independence for many Tajiks, while Uzbeks fear the dam will ruin their agriculture and environment.

U.S. officials have sought to diffuse the confrontation.

There are many other disputed water bodies and countries suffering from major water shortages in the CENTCOM area of responsibility. These disputes have been caused or exacerbated by several adverse environmental trends—growing populations, regional climate change, the growth of more water-intense agricultural practices.

The United States is eager to avoid creating adverse precedents that might generate more confrontations among Middle Eastern and Central Asian countries. Washington also worries that the dispute could drive Tajikistan toward Iran, a fellow Shiite-majority country that shares cultural and historical ties with Tajiks. U.S. diplomats have sought to use the World Bank studies as a means of depoliticizing the conflict by making it a technical and economic issue subject to rational cost-benefit analysis.

The two studies for the World Bank are being conducted by multinational consultant firms contracted on a competitive basis by the Government of Tajikistan and financed through the World Bank’s International Development Association (IDA), the part of the Bank that helps the world’s poorest countries.

The first is a Techno-Economic Assessment Study by an international consortium of engineering firms such as Coyne et Bellier, Electroconsult, and IPA Energy & Water Consulting. The second, an Environmental and Social Impact Assessment, is being undertaken by Pöyry, a Swiss company. The World Bank has also established two independent expert panels of recognized international professionals to ensure that the studies meet international standards of due diligence, objectivity, and credibility. When he was in Washington for a World Bank meeting this May, Tajikistan’s Foreign Minister Zarifi Hamrahon said that his government expects the studies to be completed by February 2013.

The problem is that the Uzbek-Tajik confrontation has become so intense that the technical issues have become less important than questions of national pride, independence, and security.

American diplomats have rightly sought to raise the issue of water-related conflicts in their bilateral and multilateral meetings with Central Asian leaders, but the next U.S. administration might consider launching a higher-profile initiative in this domain as part of the post-Afghanistan restructuring of U.S. diplomacy in the region.