Water – Uniting or Dividing factor in Central Asia?

River connects lands. River brings prosperity. But what if river becomes a matter of concern. What if river becomes a matter of gaining control over.  Water crisis is looming over everywhere in the world and Central Asia for long has suffered water issue. In Central Asia water has been a major source of tension for decades. Shrinking Aral sea is already one of the world’s worst man made water crisis which has hampered irrigation in Central Asian countries quite badly. While there has been efforts to save Aral sea in the region, but it has only resulted in squabbling over the use of the water. The main sources of water in Central Asia are the Syr Darya and Amu Darya Rivers, mostly fed by snow- and glacier-melt from the Pamir, Hindu Kush and Tien Shan mountain ranges. Syr Darya runs from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan through Uzbekistan to the northern Aral Sea in Kazakhstan and Amu Darya flows from Kyrgyzstan to Tajikistan, along the latter’s border with Afghanistan, through Turkmenistan and finally into the southern Aral Sea in Uzbekistan. These two rivers provide the main source for drinking water, irrigation, and hydropower in the region. Both the rivers together serve for more than 90% water requirement of Central Asia.

Some decades ago when the population of five stans Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan comprising Central Asia was low people used wisely the water of Syr Darya and Amu Darya for irrigation. But since Soviet Union had control over these countries they made centrally controlled quota system for water supply from upper region countries Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to lower region Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan in Central Asia. Since domination of Russian empire the emphasis shifted from irrigated agriculture to cotton produce, in 19th century while only about 25% of the total farm production was cotton, by 1990 almost two third land was being used for cotton production. Population of Central Asian countries has gone up in recent decades led by Uzbekistan, the need for food has increased. But major use of water for electricity generation for its own consumption by Kyrgyzstan, the upper region country which releases water to the lower region countries Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan has made situation tougher for them.  .

Dams in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan collected and stored water in autumn and winter and released it in spring and summer to irrigate downstream crops. In exchange, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan provided oil, gas, coal and electricity from their thermal plants to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan during winter months. By the mid-1990s, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan no longer had surplus electricity to barter, so they started asking market prices for their hydrocarbon exports. At this point Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, unable to pay these for fuel to run their heating plants, began releasing water in winter to produce hydroelectricity to heat their own homes and factories. This in effect disrupted the Soviet system that prioritised agriculture and the release of water to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in spring and summer. Since Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan decided to produce hydroelectricity, Uzbekistan the most populated country in Central Asia along with Kazakhstan is suffering irrigation issues. Though Uzbekistan is still not too short on water supply, yet because cash crop cotton has overtaken the other food crops, the water wastage is quite high.

The use of water between countries was always an issue even in Soviet times, but water allocation was centrally decided in Moscow. After becoming independent, the five new republics signed the Almaty Agreement on Joint Management of Water Resources in 1992, which led to the creation of the Interstate Commission for Water Coordination for Central Asia (ICWC), later subordinated to the International Fund for saving the Aral Sea (IFSA). While these agreements have International Water management principles, they  lack definite time frames and execution mechanisms. So in the past they have been termed “dysfunctional”. After the break- up of centrally controlled water allocation system the disproportionate allocation of water to upper region countries and lower region countries have created economical and intra-society conflicts.

Despite the fact that the countries of Central Asia jealously protect their water resources, water is not as scarce in the region  as commonly perceived. The question remains, of course, whether expensive infrastructure improvements or crop substitution are feasible in the near future. Afghanistan, the second largest contributor to Amu Darya after Tajikistan has more than a quarter of its population in the river basin and it is the most agriculturally productive area of the country. So far Afghanistan has not been centre stage in Central Asia water crisis because of its internal situations but may become one key component in future if the economic and social recovery happens rapidly in Afghanistan.