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Central Asia: Analysis From Washington--A Watershed In Central Asia

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 25 July 1997 (RFE/RL) - A meeting of the leaders of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan intended to highlight Central Asian unity has called attention to an issue -- access to water -- likely to increasingly divide them in the future.

Presidents Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan, Askar Akayev of Kyrgyzstan, and Islom Karimov of Uzbekistan met in the Kyrgyz city of Cholpon-Ata yesterday and today to promote integration among their countries and to push for a settlement in Afghanistan.

The three leaders of the Central Asian Union established in 1994 discussed expanding economic cooperation and the creation of an interparliamentary body.

They talked about the progress of the Central Asian peacekeeping battalion established under the auspices of NATO's Partnership for Peace. And they reiterated their interest in finding a peaceful resolution of the conflict in Afghanistan.

In all three cases, these Central Asian leaders sought to emphasize the amount of accord among them, even as their meeting inevitably called attention to the fact that the region's two other countries, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan, were not represented.

But even within this summit's limited circle, there are serious disagreements. And none is more serious in terms of what it portends for the future than the emerging conflict between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan over the region's limited water resources.

Earlier this year, Tashkent unilaterally reduced the flow of water from Uzbekistan to southern Kazakhstan by 70 percent, a reduction that Kazakh officials say could ruin more than 100,000 hectares of land.

Following talks between the two governments, Uzbekistan agreed to restore some of the flow. But residents of southern Kazakhstan argue that this is not enough. And this week, they staged a demonstration near the Uzbek border.

Gaining access to water has always been a problem in Central Asia. And that problem has only intensified as the growing populations of the countries there put additional pressure on the limited water supply.

Indeed, the Soviet leadership used competition for water among the Central Asian republics as a means of control. It routinely sought to play off the water surplus republics of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan against the others who did not have enough.

But in order to promote economic development, the Soviet government imposed a water-sharing agreement on the five Central Asian republics. That accord specified just how much water would go from one to another.

Even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the five countries in this region maintained that agreement because they recognized that fighting over this resource could tear the region apart and allow one or another outside power to exploit these divisions for its own ends.

But the civil war in Tajikistan and continuing population growth throughout the region now have combined to call into question the earlier set of arrangements.

And consequently, both Uzbekistan's decision to reduce the flow of water to Kazakhstan and the Kazakh reaction to that decision should come as no surprise.

Even now, the conflicts over water in the region are relatively minor. But that is likely to change rapidly over the next few years.

On the one hand, rapidly expanding populations will inevitably lead some governments to seek to keep whatever water they have or to somehow get more from their neighbors.

And on the other hand, ever more people and politicians are likely to focus on water questions because of such high visibility events as the disappearance of the region's Aral Sea.

If the countries of Central Asia can cooperate on this issue, they may find it necessary to increase the level of integration among themselves on other issues as well.

But if they find themselves unable to cooperate on water, they may find it increasingly difficult to agree on anything else. In that event, disputes over water could easily overshadow all the other disputes that currently wrack this region.