While Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are relatively poor in hydrocarbons compared with the petro-rich former Soviet republics of Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan, they both possess abundant quantities of an even more valuable resource — water. The two countries are slowly coordinating their water policies in a manner that could give both increased political and economic influence with their more prosperous downstream neighbors.
On September 19 Tajik President Emomali Rakhmon concluded a state visit to neighboring Kyrgyzstan, after which a joint communiqué was issued committing both states to intensify cooperation in developing their combined hydropower potential (Nezavisimaya gazeta, September 20).
Official press agencies reported that the two presidents discussed boundary delimitation, trade, and regional collaboration regarding joint use of available water resources. Their agreements may well presage a new relationship between the hydropower “haves” and thirsty “have-nots” of Central Asia.
Both Bakiyev and Rakhmon control a vital natural resource, which greatly strengthens their negotiating positions. The headwaters of two of Central Asia’s most important rivers, the 1,500 mile-long Amu-Darya and the 1,380 mile-long Syr-Darya, flow from their origins high in the Pamir and Tien Shan mountains, both controlled by Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, westwards to the Aral Sea, which has shrunk 60% in recent years because of catastrophic Soviet planning. The Amu-Darya’s headwaters arise in the Panj River in Tajikistan, while the Syr-Darya originates in Kyrgyzstan. Resource-poor Tajikistan also contains a number of little-known glaciers, including the Fedenko glacier, which is the largest in the world outside of the polar regions.
Central Asian leaders are slowly instituting closer regional relations, as Rakhmon’s visit follows last week’s journey to Dushanbe, Tajikistan, by Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev. The question remains open about how much “clout” the water-rich but hydrocarbon-poor states of Central Asia can exert on their more prosperous post-Soviet, oil-rich neighbors to the west. To date, Western analysts have nearly completely ignored the incipient conflict among former Soviet states divided into energy-rich but water deprived and thirsty providers.
Both countries lack exportable high-value hydrocarbon resources, which has inhibited their post-Soviet economic growth. While Kyrgyzstan quickly became the Western world’s poster child for post-Soviet reform, in 1992 Tajikistan descended into a brutal civil war. When it ended five years later the Tajik civil strife had claimed more than 50,000 lives. By the time relative tranquility was restored in 1997, more than one-tenth of the population had fled the country.
The collapse of communism left Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan scrambling to meet their energy needs by arranging barter deals with their western neighbors, trading summer hydropower for coal and gas for fall and winter use. Such an arrangement was lopsided, leaving Dushanbe and Bishkek bereft of energy during peak-usage seasons.
Massive foreign investment is needed to realize Tajikistan’s and Kyrgyzstan’s hydroelectric dreams, but the two landlocked countries are at a disadvantage as compared with their petro-rich former Soviet neighbors with greater export options. That said, Russia, China, and the United States are all ardent suitors for the hydro-riches of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Whoever wins will likely control the future of water reserves in Central Asia for the foreseeable future.
Unfortunately for Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, their post-Soviet hydroelectric facilities were not geared toward the post-Soviet economy. Furthermore, the two countries were forced to release water from their reservoirs during the autumn and winter to generate electricity to compensate for energy import shortfalls, subsequently flooding downstream areas in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan while causing summer irrigation droughts.
Following his discussions with Rakhmon, Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev said, “Our talks confirmed the proximity and similarity of our positions on regional security, economic cooperation, water and energy policies, and the strengthening of ties between our border regions” (RFE/RL, September 20).
Both Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan are thirsty for Kyrgyzstan’s and Tajikistan’s waters. If the two downstream states successfully develop their hydroelectric potential, then they might yet achieve an equitable energy arrangement with their more prosperous neighbors to the east.
Only time will tell if the two states are able to translate their hydro-influence into political leverage in relations with their downstream neighbors. While Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan remain Central Asia’s powerhouses, their prosperity depends upon river waters arising in mountains far to the east, amid countries that have little else to negotiate.