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Qishloq Ovozi

The Aral Sea "is probably the classic example of mismanagement and man-made disaster."

Once, long ago, the Amu-Darya, one of Central Asia's two great rivers, emptied into the Caspian Sea. There is still evidence of the "Uzboy" canal system in what is now southwestern Turkmenistan and indications that some 4,000 years ago it was a rich agricultural area. Now it is just a desert and there are concerns that mismanagement of water resources and climate change could transform other parts of Central Asia into desert lands.

The region's population is roughly 10 times the size it was just 100 years ago, many of the same policies that led to the desiccation of the Aral Sea are still in place, the glaciers in the mountains to the east are melting at an alarming rate, and the effects of climate change are increasingly evident.

RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, assembled a panel discussion (majlis) to review the water situation in Central Asia and neighboring states, examine regional water-supply forecasts for 35, 50, or 100 years from now, and consider whether water could be cause for conflict there.

Azatlyk Director Muhammad Tahir moderated the panel. Participating in the discussion from Iran was Kaveh Madani, an expert in global water issues from the Imperial College in London, and Ryskeldi Satke, a Bishkek-based journalist who has been investigating the recession of Central Asia's glaciers and the causes of this process. And I had a few things to say also.

Satke started the discussion by citing figures from recent studies that showed that glaciers in the Tien-Shan Mountains in Central Asia "lost 27 percent of their total mass over the last 50 years" and that, by the year 2050, "the remaining ice in the Tien-Shan glaciers could be lost further."

Satke, who has written several articles on how the Kumtor gold-mining project in Kyrgyzstan has negatively affected a nearby glacier, pointed out that the problem of receding glaciers is not unique to Central Asia. He said that in "Afghanistan and Pakistan, 93 percent of the glaciers there [are] retreating the same way."

Madani drew attention to Lake Orumieh (Urmia) in Iran and noted similarities with Central Asia.

"What we are seeing in Lake Urmia was the Aral Sea syndrome, [and] Lake Urmia is not the only one. We're seeing this [syndrome] happening in many, many places."

Madani noted, though, that this syndrome is the product of mismanagement, not climate change.

"The Aral Sea is probably the classic example of mismanagement and man-made disaster but we're seeing this elsewhere. The problem is in the developing world."

It is still unclear how bad the situation is. Studies are being done now in some of the affected countries of inner Asia, but Satke recalled these studies only resumed relatively recently.

"After the '90s, when the Soviet state collapsed, for about two decades, for close to 15 years, there were no activities," he said. As a result, regarding the situation in Central Asia, there is only data from the Soviet period and roughly the last five years.

Even without comprehensive data, however, it is evident that a dire predicament exists, and that there is no immediate way out. It was noted during the discussion that Central Asia's population has risen from some 6 to 8 million at the start of the 20th century to some 66 million today. One of the main causes of the drying out of the Aral Sea was the irrigation of Central Asian land, particularly former colonial master Russia's decision to make the region Moscow's cotton plantation. Cotton is still a vital part of state revenue for most of the current Central Asian governments, particularly Uzbekistan, though the plant requires a huge amount of water.

Added to all this are the creeping effects of climate change. Madani and Satke both said it is too early to tell how many of the current problems are the result of climate change, though unusual heat this summer in Central Asia and floods in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan could be indications of such a process.

Uzbek President Islam Karimov suggested in September 2012 that a scarcity of water could be reason for future regional wars. It already has been the source of conflict among small communities along the Kyrgyz-Tajik border.

But Madani cautioned that, to date, "we have never had in history two nations fighting over water." But he added that water has been mixed into a basket of grievances that have started wars. More optimistically, Madani said history shows there can be cooperation on water issues and such cooperation is not based on the style of governance between affected states -- even the despot can cooperate with the democrat over water issues.

These issues concerning water and its use in Central Asia were discussed in greater depth during the roundtable, as were other topics, such as the push for hydropower plants in mountainous Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan or the possibilities for a regional approach to the growing problem.

An audio recording of the discussion can be heard here:​

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Tajik security forces have been conducting an operation in the Romit Gorge to apprehend fugitive General Abduhalim Nazarzoda.

When gunbattles broke out on the outskirts of Tajikistan's capital Dushanbe between security forces and a deputy defense minister and his supporters there were fears the situation might quickly grow beyond control.

Tajikistan borders Afghanistan and there has been fighting in northern Afghanistan in recent months that was as close as several kilometers from the Tajik border. There was a civil war in Tajikistan itself from 1992 to 1997 and during the years since the war ended the peace has often been shaky.

There were many theories about what was causing the violence; a coup attempt or the start of an Islamic insurgency were among the most popular, and given Tajikistan's recent past, not unreasonable assumptions.

General Abduhalim Nazarzoda was, until September 4 when the fighting started, Tajikistan's deputy defense minister. For reasons that are still unclear, the general and his supporters attacked security forces, seized weapons and fled to the rugged Romit Gorge nearby.

Nazarzoda in the past had links to the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), which until its recent shutdown was the second largest political party in the country and the only legally registered Islamic party in all of Central Asia. The government and state media jumped to make that connection in the hours after the attacks started and later mixed in some comments about "terrorism" or "coup attempt."

Former Deputy Defense Minister Abduhalim Nazarzoda is not the first senior military officer in Tajikistan to have been accused of plotting attacks against the government. (file photo)
Former Deputy Defense Minister Abduhalim Nazarzoda is not the first senior military officer in Tajikistan to have been accused of plotting attacks against the government. (file photo)

What is going on in Tajikistan? Why is this happening? How bad is the situation?

RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, assembled a Majlis, or assembly, to try to answer those questions.

Azatlyk director Muhammad Tahir moderated a panel discussion. Participating in the talk were Parviz Mullojonov, an independent political analyst in Dushanbe, Dr. John Heathershaw, professor of Central Asia studies and Peace and Conflict studies at Exeter University in the United KIngdom, doctoral candidate Edward Lemon, also from the University of Exeter, who lived in Tajikistan and continues to keep a close watch on events there. I was there as well.

Some necessary background: Tajikistan's Justice Ministry on August 28 ordered the IRPT to shut down its political activities by September 7. The IRPT was the core group in the civil war era United Tajik Opposition that also included a secular democratic group and a Shi'a nationalist group from eastern Tajikistan.

Mullojonov said that in Tajikistan there are three versions of what happened. The Tajik government version is "a coup d'etat related to the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan," though Mullojonov noted, "there are different sub-versions proposed by various government agencies."

There is also Nazarzoda's purported side of the story, posted on Facebook page by his supporters, that "the fighting was provoked by Tajik official agencies themselves…the Tajik government was planning to arrest a group of former UTO (United Tajik Opposition) field commanders and fighters and it was planned to accuse them of attacking several police stations.

And the "third version that General Nazarzoda was supposed to be prosecuted by the Tajik government and he received information that the prosecution is going to start soon, and therefore he started the uprising."

A 'Profoundly Post-Conflict' Country

Heathershaw and Lemon agreed that the third account seemed the most likely. Heathershaw went on to say, "This is very much an intra-state conflict rather than a rebellion against the government or a coup d'etat."

Lemon pointed out that, when security forces arrived at Nazarzoda's home after the general had fled to the Romit Gorge, they found "a large arms cache and if it was a premeditated attempt at a coup d'etat then surely he would have gathered more soldiers around him and he would have obviously armed them and not left his main arms cache to be captured."

Mullojonov agreed General Nazarzoda's force seemed ill-prepared for staging a coup, and not only militarily. "I think they would be able to prepare better propaganda coverage so they would have some more clear goals and strategy, they would proclaim some clear objectives, which they don't have right now."

There have been more than a half dozen serious incidents of fighting since the end of the Tajik civil war in 1997. All were localized and most seem to have been sparked by the breaking of tacit agreements between the government and former opposition figures who had once made a vague pledge to respect the peace, in return for maintaining the small spheres of influence they carved out during the civil war.

According to Heathershaw, "What's most remarkable here first of all is how profoundly post-conflict Tajikistan remains."

General Nazarzoda's "insurrection" is already losing what little momentum it had in the first hours after the attack. The violence has not affected Tajikistan seriously; in fact the country hosted a World Cup qualifying match between the national team and Australia in Dushanbe on September 8.

Undesirable Civil War Remnants

However, Heathershaw's point that Tajikistan has not made a transition from a post-conflict state to a stable state moving away from the days of civil war is the key to the country's instability.

Nazarzoda was only directly involved in the civil war during the first few months. He spent the remainder of the war in Kazakhstan and only returned after the peace deal. He was given command of a unit comprised of former opposition fighters who were merged into Tajikistan's armed forces as part of the peace agreement.

Other opposition politicians and field commanders were similarly brought into the government and armed forces, as were some unsavory government allies from the civil war, such as former field commanders from Popular Front paramilitary groups that sided with the government.

Among them are people whose loyalty to the government, or to the peace arrangement, has never been strong. The government appears to have moved against Nazarzoda, as they have others in the past, as part of a slow process of removing undesirable civil war remnants.

But the violence won't stop until all these individuals are removed and that raises questions about whether some of these people might decide to strike first.

Lemon summed it up nicely. "It's common for outside observers and the government itself to always say that dangers proceed from the outside, so the main destabilizing factors in Tajikistan will in fact be external, they will come from spillovers from Afghanistan, they will come from the Islamic State. But no, what do we see? Political violence in Tajikistan [is] all about local politics, these are all about the kind of political economy of the post-conflict state."

The discussion delved deeper into these topics and addressed other issues.

You can listen to an audio recording of the panel discussion here:

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About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.

Bruce Pannier
Bruce Pannier

Content draws on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad.

The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.