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Central Asia and water: No time left for squabbles

A combination of rapid population growth and climate change, which some believe may lead to the vanishing of much of the region’s river-feeding glaciers within the next half century, is going to pose the greatest challenge Central Asia has ever confronted in its history.

October 31, 2017 - Peter Leonard - AnalysisIssue 6 2017Magazine

The Nurek hydroelectric station on the Vakhsh River in Tajikistan. Co-operation between Central Asia’s mountainous upstream nations, like Tajikistan, and their expansive downstream neighbours remains a key challenge for the region. Photo: Shukhrat Sadiyev (CC) commons.wikimedia.org

This past August an argument about a water reservoir between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan got so bad that it culminated in what amounted to an international, state-sponsored kidnapping. At stake was a relatively unassuming body of water in western Kyrgyzstan, known variously as the Kasan-sai or Orto-Tokoi reservoir. Although it lies several kilometres inside Kyrgyzstan, it has for years been run by Uzbek technicians who managed the outflow of water in accordance with the needs of farmers downstream, across the border.

The arrangement was uneasy but proceeded relatively peaceably until late 2015, when Kyrgyzstan’s government decided by decree to formally claim the facility. The Uzbeks were livid. A few months later, Tashkent flexed its muscles, sending troops onto a road along a disputed section of the border, hindering traffic to and from Ala-Buka, a Kyrgyz town near the reservoir. In a panic, then-Kyrgyz Prime Minister Temir Sariyev travelled to Ala-Buka to plead with furious residents not to take affairs into their own hands.

Highland-lowland drama in acts

The standoff gradually dissipated, but flared up again in the summer. One account, which Bishkek denies, described how Kyrgyz special forces tried to storm the cluster of homes in which the Uzbek workers running the reservoir live. Over a week later, a helicopter arrived from Uzbekistan and unloaded a group of police officers on the nearby Ungar-Too mountain, where Kyrgyzstan maintains a telecommunications tower. For almost a month, the Uzbek policemen kept the four Kyrgyz technicians posted there hostage inside their own country.

After some desperate diplomatic horse-trading, the technicians were finally released. The development that finally put this messy squabble to rest, however, happened just as this reservoir drama was unfolding. On September 2nd, Uzbekistan’s government announced — after days of feverish speculation — that President Islam Karimov, who led the country with icy and brutal resolve for 27 years, had died after succumbing to a brain haemorrhage, aged 78. With Karimov’s passing, out went the intransigence that had set the tone of water-sharing diplomacy for decades. Against many analysts’ expectations, the new president, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, 60, has proven flexible and pragmatic in his relations with neighbouring countries. In the most recent landmark confirmation of that change of course, during Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev’s visit to Uzbekistan on October 5th and 6th, the two nations came to a definitive agreement on the status of the Kasan-sai reservoir. Under the deal, the facility will come under Kyrgyzstan’s control, but Uzbekistan will continue to have the right to draw water from the reservoir and provide funding for its maintenance.

“Control over it will lie with the Water Management Department in Kyrgyzstan’s Agriculture Ministry. Ninety per cent of the water will be used by Uzbekistan. Under the terms of the deal, the Uzbek side will assume any costs incurred by the reservoir, such as, for example, paying workers, repairs and replacing equipment,” Kyrgyz Agriculture Minister Nurbek Murashev said after the deal was signed. This breakthrough is largely symbolic in the grander scheme of things, but its proponents will likely argue that it can serve as an example of what can be achieved through negotiations.

Water diplomacy

As history shows though, the champions of compromise face a tough time. Co-operation between Central Asia’s mountainous upstream nations and their expansive downstream neighbours has been tried before only to founder. In a bid to revive the co-ordination capacity lost with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the prime ministers of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan came together in March 1998 to ink yet another agreement on how to share the resources of the Syr-Darya River, which runs 2,200 kilometres before trickling limply into the now-doomed Aral Sea. In 1999 Tajikistan joined the arrangement, which was intended to balance between the ostensibly inimical requirements of hydropower producers Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan and irrigation needs in the fertile lowlands of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

Without a strong foundation in goodwill, the abstractly conceived arrangement was ill-equipped to withstand crises and the fractious demands of the various governments involved. As early as May 1999, Kyrgyzstan resorted to using its rivers as a political weapon, cutting off water flows to Kazakhstan so as to force its neighbour to provide recompense for the expense of maintaining reservoirs along the Syr-Darya. The gambit worked — Kazakhstan agreed to deliver hundreds of thousands of tons of coal to Kyrgyzstan.

Others quickly followed suit in a confounding tangle of diplomatic blackmail schemes. Uzbekistan cut off a section of river flowing into Kazakhstan in a demand for unsettled debts to be paid. In return, Kazakhstan disconnected part of the Soviet-period telephone grid used by Uzbekistan. So Kazakhstan then appealed to Tajikistan to release greater amounts of its own water into the Amu-Darya, so that Uzbekistan might be compelled to allow more to enter Kazakhstan. The pattern repeated in different permutations over the years, as each country used whatever commodity it had in relative abundance — gas for Uzbekistan, coal and gas for Kazakhstan, water for Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan — as bargaining chips in their disputes.

As implementation of the 1998 Syr-Darya agreement clearly became unfeasible, the document was allowed to lapse after its initial five-year cycle, forcing all the parties into ad hoc arrangements. With time, self-sufficiency at all costs has become a priority in all areas. Kyrgyzstan has borrowed heavily from China to build high-voltage power lines within the nation’s borders. Uzbekistan has bored through mountains to link its Ferghana Valley with the rest of the country, thereby obviating the need for circling around mountains through Tajikistan. Tajikistan has learnt to live without Uzbekistan’s gas supplies. 

But some things — like the ambitions of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to build giant hydroelectric dams that they dream will one day generate billions in income from exports of electricity to Afghanistan, Pakistan and India — may be harder to work around.

Tajikistan’s marvel

In Tajikistan, the Rogun Dam project is an all-consuming national obsession. Work on it started as far back as 1967, but the progress was halting. By the time the Soviet Union had collapsed, workers had managed to erect a 40-meter high dam and build 20 kilometres of service tunnels. The outbreak of the civil war in Tajikistan led to a mass exodus of technicians and then work was suspended in 1993 due to a lack of funding. One year later, the completed section of the dam was washed away in a flood and the tunnels filled with water.

Building restarted in 2004 under the aegis of Russian aluminium titan RusAl, which pledged to spend two billion US dollars on the project, but that arrangement fell through in 2007, forcing Tajikistan to go alone. If and when it is ever completed, Rogun Dam will stand astride the Vakhsh River, a tributary of the Amu-Darya, at 335 metres high, making it the tallest dam in the world. According to Salini Impregilo, the Italian engineering company now tasked with execution of the project, Rogun’s six 600 megawatt turbines will generate the same amount of power as three nuclear power plants.

If Rogun has inspired excited visions of a bright future in Tajikistan, it has historically elicited mostly ominous predictions of trouble in Uzbekistan. Karimov, the late Uzbek leader, put it in stark terms during a joint briefing with his Kazakh counterpart, in September 2012. “Since almost 1992, these issues have been discussed in great detail at all levels. As many strategists and experts say, water resources could become a problem in future that causes tensions in relations, and not just in our region”, Karimov said. “It may all get so bad that it could lead not just to confrontation, but even to war.”

Karimov was also alluding in his remarks to Kyrgyzstan’s hydropower development designs, which include construction of the Kambar-Ata plant on the Naryn River, a tributary of the Syr-Darya. That dam could generate up to 4.4 billion kilowatt hours of power annually. Uzbekistan’s anxiety stems from the belief that Rogun, and similar projects elsewhere, would reduce the amount of irrigation water available to its farmers during the summer. Even if Tajikistan were to undertake every measure to ensure its neighbour was not adversely affected, hawkish officials in Tashkent are ill at ease with the notion that the strategic balance of power would, through this project, be so radically tilted against their country.

That these positions are more heavily predicated on politics than science are broadly confirmed by the findings of specialists who have studied the issue in depth. A 2015 paper published in the journal Water International by Maksud Bekchanov, Claudia Ringler, Anik Bhaduri and Marc Jeuland, titled “How would the Rogun Dam affect water and energy scarcity in Central Asia?” finds that the construction of Rogun Ddam would not have an excessively damaging impact on irrigation sites.

“Optimal management of the dam leads to only minor impacts on downstream irrigation across different levels of water availability. Since most of the river flow in the system can already be controlled using current dams, the benefits of the newly constructed dams for irrigation water availability are inconsequential,” the paper concludes.

Benefits of co-operation

Perhaps in view of such considerations, which broadly reflect the views of the international community, Uzbekistan, under Mirziyoyev, has adopted a different tactic on the hydropower projects in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Back in July 2016, when Mirziyoyev was still prime minister under Karimov, he penned a vitriolic open letter to his Tajik counterpart, warning that Rogun was “fraught with enormous threats for the whole of Central Asia.”

Only a few months later, after Karimov’s death, when Tajikistan started a new and important stage of the project, Tashkent broke a long-standing habit by declining to make any public comment on the matter. In another incremental shift of tone in June this year, the deputy speaker of Uzbekistan’s lower house of parliament, Boriy Alihanov, told reporters that Tashkent favoured what he termed the fair use of transboundary water resources as outlined by international law.

If there is still only guarded openness from Uzbekistan to a change of language on Rogun, the situation with Kyrgyzstan is more suggestive of conviviality. So much so that the strategic partnership agreement signed by the Kyrgyz and Uzbek leaders at the start of October even envisions co-operation in “energy issues, including in the implementation of joint projects in the hydropower industry.”

Considered in broad terms, the calculus seemingly conceived by Mirziyoyev is to give tacit support to economy-boosting infrastructure among neighbours in the expectation that these same countries will become customers for the products of Uzbekistan’s industrial sector. This would replace the never-reliable security nexus for one based on trade. Those with the interests of the region at heart must hope this has not come too late. As a growing body of research shows, only an optimal co-operation scenario is going to be sufficient to avert the existential water-related dangers down the road.

A combination of rapid population growth and climate change, which some believe may lead to the vanishing of much of the region’s river-feeding glaciers within the next half century, is going to pose the greatest challenge Central Asia has ever confronted in its history. But as a 2016 World Bank study on the economic impact of climate change on various regions of the globe has illustrated, it is not all doom and gloom. “When governments respond to water shortages by boosting efficiency and allocating water to more highly-valued uses, losses decline dramatically and may even vanish,” concludes the study, titled High and Dry: Climate Change, Water, and the Economy.

For upstream countries, highly-valued uses have come to mean exploiting hydropower. In Uzbekistan, Mirziyoyev plans to implement another meaningful gear-shift by reducing the area of land where thirsty cotton crops are grown in favour of cultivating fruit and vegetables, which are more profitable to their growers. Under plans outlined by the Agriculture and Water Management Ministry, the area reserved for cotton is being reduced by 400 square kilometres this year, and will fall by another 1,000 square kilometres in 2018. That is a hefty, although perhaps not yet significant enough, chunk of the 13,000 square kilometres now dedicated to cotton.

The fork in the road in terms of water-management policies to be adopted by Central Asia’s governments, as assessed by the World Bank, is stark. In an optimal scenario, the region’s annual gross domestic product will grow by 11.5 per cent by 2050. On the doomsday end of the scale, the region’s economy will shrink by 10.7 per cent. Central Asian nations have far too long allowed water to become their bone of contention. Time is the real enemy.

Peter Leonard is the Central Asia editor of EurasiaNet.org.

This article was first published in the Issue 6/2017 of New Eastern Europe. Subscribe

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