One of Eurasia’s most intractable legacies dating from the 1991 implosion of Communism is how Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan transited their economies to national sovereignty after being constituent Soviet republics of the USSR. Of all the economic readjustments that the “Stans” have had to make, perhaps none is so complex and difficult as reaching common accord on sharing the region’s limited water resources.
The largest single unresolved issue concerning Central Asian water is the equitable division of the water flow of Central Asia’s two most important rivers, the 1,500 mile-long Amu Darya and the 1,380 mile-long Syr Darya. The Amu Darya rises in Tajikistan’s Pamir mountain range, while the Syr Darya originates in Kyrgyzstan’s portion of the Tien Shan mountain range. The two rivers wind their way across Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan before draining into the Aral Sea.
The rivers together contain more than 90 percent of Central Asia’s available water resources and are initially controlled by Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, the two poorest Stans, even as Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan are the main users of water in the region, with Uzbekistan’s extensive cotton and agricultural irrigation alone accounting for more than half of the region’s water consumption. On July 25 Kyrgyz Transport and Communications Minister Nurlan Sulaymanov and his Tajik counterpart Ashur Abdurahim held the eighth meeting of the Kyrgyz-Tajik intergovernmental commission for reviewing bilateral issues in Isfara (Kabar, July 28). Water considerations formed the centerpiece of the meeting, as the ministers discussed bilateral coordination of rational use of water resources so that the agricultural needs of neighboring states were met. The second topic of the meeting was the allocation of funds to maintain Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan’s existing water facilities.
While Central Asian countries have been discussing water issues for more than 20 years, definitive solutions have yet to be agreed, as negotiations consistently founder on issues of national interest and cost. What is apparent is that the region’s geography, combined with climate change, both natural and man-made, is making the need for a resolution of the issue ever more pressing.
The diminution of the Aral Sea epitomizes the region’s dolorous post-Soviet legacy of megalomaniacal engineering projects. Until the 1950s, the Amu Darya and Syr Darya had little of their water diverted for irrigation, with the bulk of their discharge reaching the Aral Sea. Beginning in the 1960s, however, Moscow began massive development of land for agriculture and intensive cotton cultivation in all five Central Asian republics, requiring a massive diversion of the rivers’ flow for irrigation. Over the ensuing three decades a major ecological crisis developed as the Aral Sea, once the world’s fourth-largest inland sea with an area of 28,000 square miles, shrank to approximately 8,920 square miles, separating into the northern “Small Sea” in Kazakhstan and the southern “Large Sea” in Uzbekistan, while the toxic fertilizer-laced wastelands uncovered by the sea’s retreat blew throughout Eurasia.
The region’s Soviet legacy also thwarts regional attempts to forge a common water policy, as during Soviet times Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan released water from mountain dams downriver to Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan for summer irrigation, receiving in return inexpensive oil supplies. While Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are now water rich, they remain the poorest of the Stans. Having no indigenous energy resources, Dushanbe and Bishkek have hoarded water in summer for hydroelectric generation in cold weather, which often causes flooding in Uzbekistan and southern Kazakhstan when the water is discharged downstream into frozen rivers in winter. Tentative proposals by Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan to charge for their water releases have met with stony silence from their downstream consumers.
Central Asia’s leaders have long recognized the problem; on March 23, 1993 the presidents of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan established the Interstate Commission for Water Coordination (ICWC) to coordinate regional policy. While the ICWC has held 50 meetings during the last 15 years, little of real value has been accomplished, leaving each nation increasingly to develop its own policies (https://www.icwc-aral.uz/).
The same year they also created the Interstate Council for the Aral Sea, which in turn produced the International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea (IFAS) to seek funding for restoration activities under the Aral Sea Basin Program 1 (ASBP 1). While ASBP 1 initially attracted some funding for initial projects, financing then dwindled off over charges of poor management, leaving the program now essentially moribund (Itar-Tass, July 21).
Kazakhstan, the wealthiest of the former Soviet Central Asian republics because of its energy resources, has unilaterally poured millions into constructing a dam across the northern portion of the Aral with some success, but Astana’s limited success has little impact upstream.
Promising a relatively quick and permanent solution, recently Moscow mayor Iuri Luzhkov has revived one of the USSR’s last and most megalomaniacal projects, a scheme to divert a Siberian river southward to relieve Central Asia’s water shortages (see EDM, June 13).
What will be more difficult to change is the regional economies; Uzbekistan is the world’s fifth-largest producer of cotton and the world’s second-largest cotton exporter, which comprises 20 percent of the country’s exports, and broadening its economy from cotton’s monoculture will take both time and money (Interfax, July 26; www.worldbank.org).
What is obvious, however, 17 years after the collapse of Communism, is that the Stans now have control of their political and economic destinies, and that they should reorder their national priorities to include resolving a problem common to them all without outside interference. If the regional leaders are unable to agree then they can always opt for Luzhkov’s solution, which Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev endorsed on September 4, 2006 following an informal summit of four Central Asian leaders in Astana discussing water resource management. If Central Asian leaders do decide to go for that option, however, then they had better be prepared to dig deep in their pockets, as Russian government supporters estimate that water sales to Central Asia could generate $5 billion annually. Having only recently escaped Moscow’s colonial control, Luzhkov’s seductive proposal may in the end prove Central Asia’s most expensive option of all if the Silk Road’s new leaders fail to find common accord.