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Central Asians Achieve Breakthrough Over Precious Resources

  • Bruce Pannier

Leading a donkey to water outside the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek

Leading a donkey to water outside the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek

Eastern parts of Central Asia may be warmer this winter and western parts of the region more arable this spring if a recent deal translates from paper and words to concrete actions.

The region's five post-Soviet republics appear to have resolved, for this year at least, their major disagreements over the distribution of energy and water.

Officials from Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and host Kazakhstan agreed on October 18 to a deal that looks to be to the satisfaction of all. Under the complex new arrangement, the region's energy-rich countries will provide more of their resources to their energy-poor neighbors in return for guaranteed water supplies.

Mutual Dependence

Central Asia's energy and reservoir networks are still mainly the product of Soviet times, when the five were "fraternal" Soviet republics. Then it did not matter whose water or gas, electricity or oil went where in Central Asia -- they were all part of the same country. But now those energy and water systems are linking independent countries that are not always on good terms with one another.

The core of the problem is simple: Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan have oil and natural gas but little water; Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, on the other hand, are lacking substantial energy resources but the mountains that supply Central Asia's great rivers are located on their territories.

It becomes more complicated quickly. Lacking energy resources, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan place their hopes for a domestic source of energy in hydropower. There are several large reservoirs in both countries and more are either already under construction or in the planning stages. While they might one day serve both mountainous countries' energy needs, the problem is that the downstream countries with the oil and gas want that water released according to their agricultural schedules.

In the meantime, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan import natural gas, almost all of it from Uzbekistan. But Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are chronic debtors and reductions and suspensions of gas supplies are common. Such disruptions can come at any time of year, including during winter months.

It happened last winter when wide swaths of Central Asia were experiencing their coldest winter in 40 years. Severe power rationing was imposed in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The governments in those two countries are anxious to avoid a repeat of those events and imposed power rationing at the end of summer to preempt potential problems. Adding to their miseries, the levels of hydropower reservoirs in both countries are far below normal and both governments have indicated they intend to use hydropower if they do not receive Uzbek gas.

Kyrgyzstan's drought-scarred Toktogul Reservoir in January
"The situation at Toktogul [Reservoir] is very complicated this year," Kazakh Deputy Prime Minister Umirzak Shukeev conceded at the October 18 meeting, in a reference to Kyrgyzstan's massive Toktogul Reservoir, adding that "currently there is some 9.5 billion cubic meters of water, which is a historic low."

The volume is less than half the water the reservoir usually holds, in fact. If Kyrgyzstan did choose to use it for electricity at normal capacity, water would run so low it would shut down sometime around New Year. Tajikistan is facing a similar choice.

It would also mean that there would be little water left in the spring to release into the rivers that water the agricultural fields of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan.

New Twists To Perennial Problems

The dilemma has led to some tense exchanges this spring and summer as officials from all five countries held meeting after meeting attempting to resolve the matter, and a number of disparate positions had to be reconciled to clear the way for a deal.

Kyrgyzstan suggested its water be treated as a commodity -- like the gas and oil it must import -- but Uzbekistan flatly rejected the idea that the waters of Central Asia could be bought and sold. The media in both countries were involved, criticizing the other country's position and responding to the criticism coming from the other country.

Turkmenistan traditionally has stayed away from negotiations about water and energy in Central Asia. But under President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, who took office after the death of his longtime predecessor in late 2006, Ashgabat is politically active in the region again. As a result, Turkmenistan is playing a part in the new arrangement.

"Turkmenistan took upon itself the responsibility to sell additional amounts of electrical energy to Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan has the responsibility of guaranteeing the transit of that electrical energy," Shukeev said.

Uzbekistan has other responsibilities under the deal. "If Uzbekistan provides Kazakhstan [and Kyrgyzstan] with 150 million cubic meters of gas, in addition to the declared volumes already contracted, we [Kazakhstan] will supply fuel oil and coal [to Kyrgyzstan]," Shukeev explained. "We also have taken on a commitment to make an advance payment for electricity for the next crop season."

He also explained that Kyrgyzstan would introduce "strict controls" over energy produced from hydroelectric facilities.

Kamol Nuraliev, Tajikistan's deputy water resources minister, said his country is obliged to ensure sufficient cross-border flows to feed a major Uzbek reservoir.

"All the sides agree that the Turkmen electricity will be transferred through Uzbekistan and the Tajik side will maintain the needed flow of water from Qairoqum Reservoir to Uzbekistan," Nuraliev said in Dushanbe on October 22. "At the same time, the neighbors will help Tajikistan to improve the technical state of the Qairoqum Reservoir."

Room For Backsliding?

Participants also managed to tackle a stubborn dispute over the Dostyk (Friendship) canal that flows out of Uzbekistan into southern Kazakhstan. Mindful of the fact that drought struck areas of Central Asia earlier this year, Uzbekistan appeared to been withholding water from the canal on its territory as insurance against future water shortages. Uzbekistan's explanations for nearly halting the flow of water into the Dostyk canal have been underpublicized, to put it diplomatically.

The situation prompted one local Kazakh official to lament, in early July, that the "amount of water is so small that it is appropriate to say that the canal has practically been closed." Days after that comment, Shukeev sent an angry telegram to Tashkent warning of "regional consequences" if the water were not restored to the canal. (Local Kazakh officials confirmed within 48 hours of that telegram that the canal was flowing at normal levels.)

This month's agreement stipulates that the Dostyk canal's flow cannot fall below 700 cubic meters per second, according to Shukeev.

In light of circumstances, the agreement is widely regarded as overdue progress on some of the region's most contentious issues, even though its terms expire at the end of the coming winter.

Central Asia saw extreme cold last winter and was parched this summer, suggesting that all five sides have added incentives to work together. But it is too early to regard the successful completion of the recent talks as a sign of durable progress.

A milder winter that provides generous amounts of precipitation for reservoirs could easily see all parties return to their original positions on energy and water distribution, ensuring deadlocks in the future that could hobble vulnerable economies and boost discontent among some of the former Soviet Union's most beleaguered populations.

Yerzhan Karabaek of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, Amirbek Usmanov of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, Salimjon Aioubov and Tohir Safarov of RFE/RL's Tajik Service, and director of RFE/RL's Turkmen Service Oguljamal Yazliyeva contributed to this report

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