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Central Asia: Water Becomes A Political Issue

  • Bruce Pannier

Central Asia is experiencing the worst drought in decades. Political relations are drying up along with the crops, as the countries squabble over water rights. RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier reports.

Prague, 3 August 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The fields of southern Uzbekistan and southern and eastern Turkmenistan receive their water from rivers that flow out of the mountains of Tajikistan. Usually, the flow is ample for all three countries. But the current drought means that Tajikistan needs most of what passes through its territory first for itself.

Shukri Ahmed of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization told RFE/RL that the situation in Tajikistan is very grave.

"It is actually up to a 46 to 47 percent decline in cereal output this year compared to last year. And last year itself was a very bad year. We are seeing a very dire situation."

There are two major rivers in the region -- the Amu-Darya and the Syr-Darya. The Syr-Darya originates in Kyrgyzstan, then weaves in and out of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan on its way to the Aral Sea. The Amu-Darya originates in Tajikistan and then forms the Uzbek-Afghan border until it turns north, sometimes forming and sometimes crossing back and forth along the Turkmen-Uzbek border as it travels to the Aral Sea.

A system of reservoirs, built in the Soviet era, helps provide a steady flow for these two rivers. The system was designed with regional needs in mind. But today, the system provides water to five separate countries, not five states within one country.

Last year, Kyrgyzstan for the first time used water as a political tool. It demanded compensation for maintaining the reservoirs on the Syr-Darya. Kazakhstan, for example, was asked for shipments of coal to keep northern Kyrgyzstan warm and productive in the winter. When Kazakhstan did not ship the coal, Kyrgyzstan closed off the reservoirs that release water to Kazazkhstan. The pressure worked; the bill was paid.

The same tactics are coming into play this year as well, but two countries, not one, are using them. Uzbekistan has cut water supplies to Kazakhstan, citing non-payment of debt. Kazakhstan retaliated by shutting off the Soviet-era telephone lines in Kazakhstan that lead into and out of Uzbekistan. Uzbekistan's callers must now use newer and much more expensive phone lines recently installed by Western companies to call anywhere north of Kazakhstan.

In desperation, Kazakhstan sent a delegation to Tajikistan to ask the Tajik government to release more water into the Amu-Darya for Uzbekistan, so that the Uzbek government would be able to release more water from the Syr-Darya into Kazakhstan.

In an extremely generous gesture -- given the country's situation -- Tajikistan has agreed to give more water to Uzbekistan, although there is no evidence it has provided any water to Kazakhstan. Tajik Deputy Minister of Water Resources Vohid Shefiev said the decision will be hard on the Tajik people but could benefit them later this year. "Although we ourselves are experiencing a shortage of water, we decided to supply Uzbekistan with water and we expect that our neighbor will help us with electricity in the winter."

That decision not only leaves less water for Tajikistan's fields, it also reduces the level of water in the Nurek Hydro-Electric Dam by 12 meters. That means less power for a large part of Tajikistan.

Other water squabbles further complicate the situation. Kazakhstan is rethinking an agreement nearly closed with neighbor China last year. As China's oil business expands westward toward Kazakhstan, millions of new workers are expected in the area. To meet their needs, China plans to redirect some water from the Ertis (Irtysh) River, which flows into Kazakhstan.

That plan raises eyebrows in Kazakhstan. Kazakh Ecology Minister Serikbek Daukeyev says China's work on its part of the Ertis has lowered the water level in Kazakhstan's part. Daukeyev said the drinking water in the country's industrial northeast could be affected.

There is also an ownership dispute over a reservoir located on or near the Uzbek-Kyrgyz border, depending on which country's officials are speaking. There are reports local officials in border regions are using water to extract goods, often badly needed, from neighboring farmers on the other side of the border. Stories circulate of incoming traffic being stopped at border check points until more water is released.

Specialists on the region have predicted for years now that these new countries would come into conflict over water. Reliable figures for the region's population 100 years ago are difficult to find. But the population today is probably five times what it was at the start of the last century. The consumption of water is killing the Aral Sea, now about half its size a century ago.

And a cycle of drought can often last years, which means the worst may be yet to come. The FAO-WFP mission warned that half of Tajikistan's people are looking at hunger if the situation does not change. That may be a warning to all the countries in the region.

(Salimjon Aioubov and Iskander Aliyev of the Tajik Service, Merhat Sharipzhan of the Kazakh Service, and Naryn Idinov of the Kyrgyz Service contributed to this report.)