Central Asian leaders reiterated pledges to rescue the Aral Sea during a summit meeting in Astana, Kazakhstan, on Friday, September 1. At that meeting, the presidents of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan decided to revive the International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea. (Turkmenistan did not participate in the Astana meeting.) The Fund is to be chaired by Kyrgyzstan and based in Kazakhstan, including an Information Center in Almaty (Kazinform, September 2).
The shrinking Aral Sea, bordering Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, has highlighted the Central Asian governments’ apparent inability to cooperate on crucial regional issues. By 2020, according to United Nations experts, the Aral Sea may no longer exist. UN Environmental Program specialists estimate that the Aral’s surface area is now just 25% of the level present before Soviet central planners began diverting the rivers that feed the sea for ill-conceived agricultural irrigation schemes.
The problem is that the five Central Asian states have largely failed to come up with a viable multi-lateral approach to replace the Soviet system of management. During the Soviet era, water and energy resources were exchanged freely across Central Asia, and Moscow provided the funds to build and maintain infrastructure. Shortly after independence, the five countries agreed to maintain the Soviet quota system, but this has become unworkable. In the wake of the civil war in Tajikistan and the decay of Kyrgyzstan’s economy, water-monitoring facilities have fallen into disrepair.
Moreover, an annual cycle of disputes has developed between the three downstream countries — Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, which are all heavy consumers of water for growing cotton, and the upstream states — Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The downstream countries require more water for their expanding agricultural sectors and rising populations, while the economically weaker upstream countries want to use more water for electricity generation.
While in Astana, Central Asian leaders decided to form a working group to discuss the creation of an international water consortium (Kazinform, September 2). All four presidents pledged to develop the water and energy consortium for the transfer of natural resources across country lines. If such a consortium develops, it would act as an arbiter for disputes over water, although it is unclear how or when it would take effect. However, the summit produced only promises of further discussion.
“We will focus on the problem of the Aral Sea,” Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev told a press briefing in Astana on September 4. He urged continued aid to those people suffering from the environmental disaster around the Aral (Kazinform, September 4).
Nazarbayev also reiterated interest in diverting waters from Siberian rivers to Central Asia, not only to save the Aral Sea, but also to supply the region with drinking water. He mentioned recent discussions with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the issue and claimed that arguments against the diversion were not convincing. However, Nazarbayev conceded that the project would be costly and sources of funding are yet to be found (Interfax, Kazakhstan Today, September 4).
Through the 1970s and the 1980s, the Soviet water resources ministry sponsored a water diversion blueprint and nearly succeeded in launching actual construction.
However, Russian scholars condemned the project, arguing that diverting rivers could upset the global environmental balance. These protests became the roots of Russia’s homegrown environmental movement. The Soviet government also found the project not feasible economically, and in the mid-1980s the plan was abandoned.
In December 2002, Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov suggested building a canal from Khanty-Mansiisk to Central Asia through Kazakhstan in order to divert the Siberian Ob and Irtysh Rivers to the Central Asian Amu Darya and Syr Darya Rivers. Luzhkov sent an official letter to President Putin, suggesting construction of a 16-meter-deep and 200-meter-wide canal.
The 2,225-kilometer Siberia-Central Asia Canal project would divert 6-7% of the Ob’s waters per year. The canal’s supporters argued that selling excess fresh water to Central Asia could prove a lucrative project for Russia. Luzhkov argued that the canal would enlarge the amount of arable land in Central Asia by roughly 2 million hectares, and by 1.5 million hectares in southern Siberia. He estimated the project’s cost at between $12 billion and $20 billion. However, independent Russian experts have estimated that the project’s price tag could well exceed $300 billion.
The Central Asian governments back the plan to divert Siberian waters, because they are struggling to share water resources. The 2002 meeting of donors for saving the Aral Sea in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, concluded that the Aral Sea could not be saved without diverting waters from the Siberian rivers southward.
The Russian government is yet to come up with any official reaction to the Siberian river diversion scheme. However, some officials have indicated that Russia, or at least some regions, may eventually face shortages of quality drinking water.
In the meantime, competition for water is increasing in Central Asia at an alarming rate, adding tension to what is already a volatile region. Water use has increased since the Central Asian states became independent in 1991 and is now at an unsustainable level. Due to the lack of funding, irrigation systems have decayed and half of all irrigation water never reaches crops. Large amounts of water are wasted in transit along Central Asia’s crumbling irrigation canal system.
Uzbekistan in particular faces serious problems. Agriculture is the cornerstone of the country’s economy, and thirsty crops such as cotton and rice require intensive irrigation. Uzbekistan’s agricultural infrastructure is dependent on irrigation, which consumes about 90% of the country’s water resources.
Not surprisingly, in the wake of the Astana summit Uzbek President Islam Karimov came up with renewed gestures towards Russia, apparently hoping to secure Moscow’s more favorable attitude towards the Siberian river diversion scheme. “Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan see their prospects only with Russia,” Karimov told a press briefing in Astana on September 4. “We will be strong only when we will be together, uniting our capabilities” (RIA-Novosti, September 4).