Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 5

The government of Kazakhstan, true to its tradition of international solidarity, was quick to offer a helping hand to tsunami-affected areas of Southeast Asia. On January 3 a cargo plane took off from Karaganda airport to deliver 46 tons of foodstuffs and medicines to Sri Lanka. Kazakhstan pledged the same amount of humanitarian aid to Indonesia. But in the wake of recent flooding of the Syrdaria River basin in South Kazakhstan, residents of Kyzylorda region will also require a substantial amount of assistance from Astana. On the night of December 29, the rising level of the Syrdaria River washed away three dams and flooded a wide section of the road linking Zhosaly and Zhalagash in Karmakshy district (Kazakhstan TV, December 30).

The real tragedy, much more depressing than the calamity itself, has been the government’s clumsy handling of the situation. Although the Syrdaria was rising at the staggering rate of 700 cubic meters per second for more than a week, the situation in the hardest hit Zhalagash district of Kyzylorda region was not declared an emergency until January 5. More than 380 hectares of farmland in the Syrdaria River basin were flooded. The floodwaters still pose a threat to villages in Zhalagash and Aksu (KTK TV, January 5).

This is not the first time that vast areas of the rice-growing Kyzylorda region have been hit by floods. At this time of the year the Syrdaria River is usually covered with ice, but the flooding is caused by the enormous discharges of water from the Toktogul hydroelectric power station upstream in Kyrgyzstan. A similar situation occurred in February 2004. Enormous quantities of water released from the Toktogul power station rushed down the Syrdaria and within days overfilled the Shardara water reservoir, which has a holding capacity of 5.2 billion cubic meters. To make things worse, Uzbekistan blocked the waterways to the Aranasay lowlands on its territory with dams. Residents of the dozens of villages located along the Syrdaria River had to be relocated last year. This year’s flooding is smaller in scale, and was probably caused by abnormal thawing upstream. Emergency Agency officials assured the population that there was no immediate threat of flooding to nearby villages (Khabar TV, January 4). This optimism, however, is not much solace to those who remember last year’s bitter lessons.

But any government actions will only be stop-gap measures. A solution to flooding in the Syrdaria River basin urgently requires international cooperation. Nearly half (about 44 cubic kilometers) of Kazakhstan’s river-water resources come from China, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Russia. However it is not easy for Kazakhstan to find a common language on water management issues with its neighbors. Last year deputy ministers of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan gathered in Shymkent (South Kazakhstan) to find ways to avert the flooding. Kyrgyzstan formally agreed to reduce the amount of discharge from the Toktogul power station, and Uzbekistan, in turn, pledged to increase the outflow of water upstream. But apparently Uzbeks fear that dumping huge quantities of water into Arnasay will destroy the local irrigation system. At any rate, Kazakhstan blames its neighbors for failing to fulfill the commitments made in Shymkent (KTK TV, January 5).

Rice and cotton growers in Kyzylorda region rely on water supplies from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. In fact all Central Asian states are interdependent in terms of energy resources. In a system dating from Soviet times, Kazakhstan would deliver cheap coal to Kyrgyzstan in exchange for electricity, and Uzbekistan is to this day is the main supplier of gas to Kyrgyzstan. At the same time, each of these states is increasingly striving to use its own position to the best advantage and stressing its independent energy policy.

Last year members of Kyrgyzstan’s parliament, usually the most amenable partners for Kazakhstan, refused to approve the Kazakh-Kyrgyz cooperation agreement. They found the proposed bilateral government coordination of water and energy policy to be harmful to the national interests of Kyrgyzstan (Public Educational Radio and TV of Kyrgyzstan, December 4). Members of parliament in both in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan suspect that their governments are not active enough in defending their national interests in the use of cross-border rivers and energy resources.

Nevertheless, Bishkek and Astana fully realize that cooperation in water and energy resources is a must. In November last year the Kyrgyzgaz, Kaztransgaz, and KyrKazgaz joint-stock companies signed an agreement that envisages Kazakhstan investing $17.5 million to update Kyrgyzstan’s gas-transport system by the year 2008. The ambassador of Kazakhstan to Kyrgyzstan, Umirzak Uzbekov, believes that by paying the larger part of the $20 million debt for the electricity supplied by Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan removed the last obstacle in bilateral economic relations (Liter, December 25).

But obstacles do remain. A solution to the water resources and energy problem is not likely to be reached by bilateral agreements, which often are never implemented. A genuine solution requires joint efforts among all Central Asian states and the involvement of international organizations interested in lasting political stability in the region.