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Central Asia: Analysis From Washington -- Water Power

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 1 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Central Asian countries are facing difficulties in allocating scarce water supplies among themselves because at least one upstream state wants to use its control of water to pressure its neighbors, according to a senior Kazakhstan government official.

Kazakhstan's Water Resources Minister Andar Shukputov said this week that bilateral accords about the sharing of water have been reached between his country and Kyrgyzstan and between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan

But the three countries have not been able to reach agreement on a multilateral accord because Kyrgyzstan is insisting that Kazakhstan first pay $20 million in debts to Bishkek. That demand is not so large that Kazakhstan cannot meet it, but its timing puts enormous pressure on Astana.

Shukuptov noted that Kazakhstan needs some 3.5 cubic kilometers of water for its current growing season but now has a significant deficit. If the multilateral accord is not signed, then Kazakhstan's agricultural sector and its water needs more generally will become "very complex."

Prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union, Moscow regulated the flow of water among the Central Asian republics, two of which -- Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan -- have more water than they need and three of which -- Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan -- do not have enough.

But since 1991, the five countries have had to agree among themselves on how to divide this most precious resource. Moreover, they have had to do so in the face of mounting pressures, political, financial, and economic, that have made any such agreement increasingly difficult.

The governments of these five countries have sought to portray themselves as the defenders of their respective nations. Giving water away to neighbors is not viewed in many cases as politically useful.

Moreover, all of these countries have extremely small budgets and are unable or in some cases unwilling to spend scarce resources on the development of water systems that will benefit others more than it will benefit their own citizens.

And all of these countries face rapidly increasing populations, a trend that creates ever greater demands on the existing water supply and on the water delivery infrastructure.

In this situation, those countries which have water are ever more reluctant to allow those without it to acquire it unless they pay for it in one way or another.

The governments in the region have discussed the institution of special charges on down-river states for water construction projects of the donor states. And the down-river states, like Kazakhstan, are exploring ways of building reservoirs to make themselves more independent.

But as the Kazakh minister's statement this week indicates, the five are far from complete agreement on what should be done. And that lack of accord means that water issues are increasingly exacerbating tensions in the region.

Leaders and analysts in the region have already pointed out that tensions over access to essential water supplies could heighten tensions among governments already challenged by severe economic, political, and ideological problems.

But the demand by the Kyrgyzstan government reported by the Kazakhstan minister represents a new escalation, an attempt by Bishkek to use its control over water to extract payments, not for water itself but for other things.

Such an effort, especially if other countries in the region copy it, could mean that the contest over water might reduce if not eliminate the possibilities for regional cooperation on other issues.

That trend is especially likely if Bishkek succeeds in extracting the money it wants and if other countries in the region try to use the power of water to generate other kinds of power for themselves.