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Central Asia: Trans-Boundary Water Management A Fundamental Issue

  • Antoine Blua

With Tajikistan taking a lead in the UN initiative to declare 2003 the year of fresh water, the country will host an international forum on the issue starting 30 August. The UN-supported three-day Dushanbe International Fresh Water Forum will be a platform for participating countries to share their views on how to improve the management of water resources for future generations. The problem is especially acute in Central Asia, where the region's five countries wrestle with sharing limited water resources.

Prague, 27 August 2003 (RFE/RL) -- During the Soviet era, Central Asian water resources were oriented toward irrigation rather than energy production. The upstream nations of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan provided free water to Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan. Those hydrocarbon-rich downstream republics provided free fossil fuels in return.

But the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 put an end to the system, triggering tensions between upstream and downstream states.

David Lewis is the director of the International Crisis Group's Central Asia project in Osh, in southern Kyrgyzstan. "The water issue remains a major factor of tension between states in the region," he says. "The major problem is that the main reserves of water are in the upstream mountainous countries of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, whereas the main demand for water is in downstream countries, particularly Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, where agriculture has always been dependent on intensive irrigation particularly for cotton, which is such a major part of the Uzbek economy for example."

He says the failure to reach an agreement over the distribution of these resources between the states means that Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan "effectively don't have enough water during the summer, and the upstream countries don't have enough energy resources to provide their domestic needs in energy."

Without fossil fuels to provide heating, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have switched to using water-powered electrical generation, increasing the winter demand by over 100 percent. Meeting this demand requires major wintertime water releases, for example, by Kyrgyzstan's Toktogul reservoir, causing summer irrigation water shortages in downstream countries.

Water has been a key issue for donors, with a particular emphasis on technical rather than political or economic solutions.

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has been supporting projects to improve regional water and energy resources management, which it believes to be highly important for continued economic development and peace and stability in Central Asia.

Ken McNamara is a natural resources management specialist with USAID in Central Asia. He says Kyrgyzstan's energy needs lie at the center of the issue. But he doesn't believe, as some have suggested, that these nations are ready to start fighting over water.

"There are enough water resources in Central Asia to meet the needs of Central Asian people," he says. "The real problem is in Kyrgyzstan meeting its energy needs. That's where the real difficulty lies. And I really do think that over the course of the next few years there are going to be agreements which are going to help solve this problem."

McNamara insists one of the measures that could help reduce seasonal conflicting demands in the use of water for power and irrigation in the Syr-Darya basin is the reduction of electricity losses and theft in the Kyrgyz energy system, which are believed to deprive the country of about 40 percent of its energy production.

USAID's Trans-Boundary Water and Energy Project has started to implement projects to replace the metering system with accurate equipment and to implement state-of-the-art metering, billing, and collection software.

Annica Carlsson shares McNamara's optimism. She is an environmental adviser at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). "Water could be a source of tension in Central Asia because there are many [people] who are interested in using the same water resources. Of course it can be difficult to allocate that water so that everybody is satisfied. On the other hand, I think international experience shows that more often than causing conflicts, water can be a source of cooperation between states," Carlsson says.

Last year the OSCE and UN agencies launched the Environment and Security Initiative to promote the use of environmental management in Central Asia as a strategy for enhancing cooperation and reducing insecurity.

The OSCE is also working on the establishment of mechanisms for water management cooperation through river commissions. The organization is, for instance, involved in negotiating and implementing an agreement for the Chu and Talas rivers between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

Amirkhan Kenchimov is deputy head of the water resources agency at the Kazakh Agriculture Ministry. He says trans-boundary water management will be high on the agenda of the upcoming Dushanbe International Fresh Water Forum, which begins on 30 August.

"One of the main topics of that meeting will concern the [two main] trans-boundary rivers -- namely the Syr-Darya and Amu-Darya. We will discuss how to use them together for the benefit of all the countries' economies," Kenchimov says.

But Mahmood-ul-Hassan, from the Tashkent office of the nonprofit International Water Management Institute (IWMI), a research organization, explains the limitation of water forums in Central Asia. Having participated in several inter-state conferences and workshops, he says, "What I found disappointing is that people tend not to touch on [sensitive] issues. Therefore real issues are never put on the table, and then are not discussed. So what we can do is facilitate a process whereby all five [Central Asian] states understand [everyone's] concerns, put very frankly all issues together on the table, and then start really realistically discussing how to make compromises. Currently what I feel is that all countries take certain positions and they are not negotiable. We need a kind of mediation mechanism, independent and neutral, which does not influence the outcome, but which influences, helps, and facilitates a process of dialogue."

So far the Central Asian republics have failed to reach a consensus on a manageable and equitable region-wide water management system despite the creation of the Interstate Coordinating Water Commission in 1992. Focusing on the division of water, the commission has no representation from agricultural or industrial consumers, or from nongovernmental organizations. Its management is dominated by Uzbek officials, a situation that critics say contributes to a lack of political commitment by other countries in the region.

(Edige Magauin of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service contributed to this report.)