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Qishloq Ovozi

The construction of a water-purification plant on Kazakhstan's southwestern Caspian Sea coast could be a game-changer for the region (file photo of a Kazakh oil-processing facility).

Look at a map showing population density in Central Asia and it is immediately apparent that the majority of the region's approximately 68 million people live in the east.The reason is equally obvious; the western part of Central Asia is home to two large deserts, Kyzyl Kum and Kara Kum -- the red and black sand deserts, respectively.

At the same time, the bulk of the region's substantial hydrocarbon wealth is located in the western half of Central Asia. Efforts to open up the region and bring people in to work these vast oil and natural gas fields have been limited to a significant extent by the inability to provide adequate water to populations in western Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan.

A solution to this equation is there -- the Caspian Sea -- and now officials in Kazakhstan's southwestern Mangistau Province are preparing to harness this resource by building a water purification plant.

The head of the provincial department for industrial-innovation development, Nurbek Karasaev, announced plans for construction of the plant at the end of September. According to Kazakhstan's news website, Karasaev said the plant would be located in the Karakiya district of Mangistau Province. Karakiya is the southernmost district of the province. To the west of Karakiya is the Caspian Sea, to the south Turkmenistan, and to the east Uzbekistan. The name Karakiya means "Black Cliff(s)" and provides an excellent idea of what the area looks like.

Mangistau is one of Kazakhstan's major oil-producing regions. Therefore, it is not surprising that a co-sponsor of the water purification plant is KazMunaiGaz [KMG], the state oil and gas company. Technically the co-sponsor is KMG subsidiary OzenMunaiGaz. Karasaev noted the plant was being built "in the first place for the needs of OzenMunaiGaz and for the population, to relieve the shortage of fresh water."

Mangistau Province is not only oil country, it's where two of Kazakhstan's most important Caspian ports are located -- Aktau and Kuryk, the administrative center of the Karakiya district.

Trans-Caspian Pipeline

Kuryk port facilities are currently under construction but the town is to have a new oil terminal for loading tankers. It is also set to be the end point for the Erskene-Kuryk pipeline, which is to bring oil from Kazakhstan's offshore field Kashagan.

There are plans to construct a trans-Caspian oil pipeline that would link the pipeline from Kuryk to Baku, Azerbaijan's capital, on the western shore. Azerbaijan's energy minister just authored an article about it.

The population of Mangistau Province, currently well under 500,000, is nearly certain to see a noticeable increase in coming years as the oil and shipping industries expand, with the accompanying greater demand for water.

I would be remiss not to mention the social situation in Mangistau Province, which is home to Zhanaozen, an oil town that shot to infamy in December 2011 when police opened fire on striking oil workers. At least 16 people were killed.

The drastic fall in oil prices on world markets has caused Kazakhstan to keep production levels in check. With diminished revenues, Kazakhstan's oil companies have been implementing the inevitable reductions in the work force, although with Zhanaozen in mind authorities are moving very slowly. That said, there have been many reports in Kazakhstan that more layoffs are coming soon -- and that oil workers in Mangistau will be affected.

A new source of potable water can't prevent dismissals in Mangistau's oil sector but better social conditions generally have been a frequent demand from people in the region.

New Possibilities

If successful, the water-purification plant could open up new possibilities along the eastern coast of Caspian Sea, in agriculture for example.

Turkmen leaders have spoken about constructing desalinization plants on the Caspian coast for more than a decade but the focus there has remained on internal water-treatment plants and reclamation programs. The country, nearly 90 percent covered by desert, could use a lot more water.

Turkmenistan's Balkan Province borders the Caspian Sea and is a major oil-producing region. But water is available in the provincial capital Balkanabat for only four hours a day.

Playing with water in Central Asia is a very dangerous proposition. It always has been -- even in the much better supplied regions in the east, where the mountains are.

The horribly desiccated Aral Sea is the best-known example of what can happen. The over-planting of cotton and a population almost 10 times larger than it was 100 years ago has left the "Island Sea" little more than alkaline depression in the Kara Kum Desert with water left in only a very small area.

The Karakiya plant would seem to be an answer to these sorts of problems.

PHOTO GALLERY: The Slow Death Of The Aral Sea

In fact, the water level in the Caspian Sea is rising, more than two meters since the late 1970s. The Caspian Sea is fed by some 130 rivers but has no outlet, so water accumulates with only evaporation causing loss.

So an argument could be made that this is, for now, "extra" water that could do much good for coastal areas in Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan if purified.

That process will not be so easy. Water from the Caspian Sea needs to be desalinated.

Back more than 65 million years, the Caspian Sea was the Paratethys Sea and connected the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans. Only fresh water flows into the Caspian now but there is still a large amount of residual salt left in the Caspian region.

On the average, water salinity is one-third that in the oceans, but the concentration changes, becoming denser further south in the Caspian. There is one exception, the area around the Kara-Bogaz-Gol; the great shallow gulf off northwestern Turkmenistan where water salinity is ten times that of the ocean.

It also happens to be just south of Kuryk.

Still, the planned purification-desalinization plant in Karakiya district presents few apparent downsides while promising what could be ample reward. In a region that has been short on solutions for a multitude of problems, this is one project that could be key to one of the most basic of needs.

RFE/RL's Kazakh and Turkmen services contributed to this report. The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect he views of RFE/RL.
An Afghan National Army commando aims his weapon amid ongoing fighting between Taliban militants and Afghan security forces in the northern city of Kunduz.

The northern Afghan city of Kunduz is under assault again, a year after it was briefly captured by the Taliban. Tens of thousands of civilians have been forced to flee as the Afghan military and Taliban militants fight it out on the streets.

In late September 2015, when the Afghan military retook the city, the Taliban did not flee very far away, making the current battle to a large extent predictable.

What happened in the year between the Taliban attacks on Kunduz? Did the Afghan government take any measures to prevent a repeat of the September 2015 fiasco? And how is it that the Taliban could attack the same city?

RFE/RL gathered a majlis, a panel, to look into those questions.

Moderating the discussion was RFE/RL Media Relations Manager Muhammad Tahir. From Afghanistan, Kamal Safi, a parliamentarian representing Kunduz Province, joined the talk. Also from Afghanistan, the former governor of Kunduz Province, Omar Safi (no relation), took part. From Washington D.C., Barmak Pazhwak, the senior Afghanistan program officer at the U.S. Institute of Peace, participated. And as usual, I was in Prague and had a bit to say also.

The Taliban's brief capture of Kunduz city in September 2015 was a shock to most. The Taliban had been active in the northeastern provinces of Badakhshan, Kunduz, and Takhar but had never seized a provincial capital since it had been driven from power in Afghanistan by the U.S.-led invasion 14 years previously.

The militants were driven out of Kunduz in just a few days, but villagers near Kunduz, and members of the government in Kabul, said many times that the Taliban had only retreated to areas outside the city -- in some cases only a few kilometers away.

Kamal Safi described the current situation, as of October 5. "Apart from a few buildings like the governor's house, the police chief's office, and [a few others], the rest of the city is still [under] the Taliban and they are resisting the offensive of the security forces," he said.

The parliamentarian said civilians were faced with "no electricity, no water. There is no food, all the food shops are closed ... and if any bread is available in some parts of the city, the cost is four or five times higher [than usual]."

Former Kunduz Governor Omar Safi said the problem now was the same as last year. "There is no coordination and there is no interest from the government security forces' side to fight against the enemy." He pointed out that when this latest battle started there were "only one or two dead of the government forces," a sign, Safi said, that government troops had retreated almost as soon as the attack started. (Editors' note: Government forces have since launched a counter-offensive.)

Corruption Hampering Government Efforts

The former governor said that when the Taliban staged the September 2015 attack on Kunduz "we had only one regiment in Kunduz." The Afghan government did reinforce troops in Kunduz. "There are three battalions," Safi said, "So there are around almost 18,000 troops in Kunduz Province."

Pazhwak said: "The Afghan government hasn't been able to establish a control and command structure for this war in Kunduz that is unified and well-coordinated among the different security forces of the country."

But as has happened in so many other places in Afghanistan, corruption is playing a large part in the failures of government forces. [Omar] Safi said, "President [Ashraf] Ghani approved 550 million Afghani to Kunduz city, just to make a security belt for Kunduz." But unfortunately, "this money was all lost, misused" and he added none of the planned 17 security bases that were to have surrounded Kunduz city were ever built.

There are other reasons why government forces were struggling to pacify Kunduz Province. Pazhwak noted: "Kunduz, unfortunately, is practically a divided province. It is divided among a few power brokers, warlords, and a patronage system that could be traced all the way to Kabul."

Parliamentarian Safi added: "Kunduz is known as a small Afghanistan in the sense that all tribes who live in Afghanistan live in Kunduz as well, from all the small tribes [and] big tribes."

'Russian Buffer Zone'

But former Kunduz Governor Safi offered another interesting reason the Taliban were so difficult to suppress in Kunduz Province. "Most important is their [Taliban] recent ties with the Russians to keep this as a buffer zone for Russia to prevent [Islamic State] infiltration to a former Russian state like Tajikistan."

Tajikistan's Asia-Plus independent news agency reported on December 29, 2015, that Russian Ambassador to Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov confirmed that Taliban representatives from northern Afghanistan met with Russian officials at an air base Russia's military used in Tajikistan. The Asia-Plus report named one of the Taliban officials as being "Qori Dinmuhammad Hanif, a commander of the Taliban from northern Afghanistan," and the report said Russian officials had met not once, but several times with Taliban officials at the base in Tajikistan, seemingly without the Tajik government's knowledge.

The report continued that government forces were unable to dislodge Hanif's forces from a district in Badakhshan Province, east of Kunduz Province, because "it [the district] is guarded with Russian weapons."

Former Governor Safi said local militiamen, called Arbaky, often simply paramilitary groups loyal to local warlords, had "seen some huge ammunition ships coming from the Tajik side to the Taliban side to distribute."

Outside of Ambassador Kabulov's comments, Russian officials have not spoken publicly about meetings or contacts with Taliban representatives.

Parliamentarian Safi would say only that "Kunduz has a long border with Central Asia and ... regional interests have changed." He added: "We also cannot deny that some of the local commanders, apart from the Taliban, have [made] frequent visits [to] the Central Asian states."

Our guests discussed these topics in greater detail, especially providing information about the complicated situation in Kunduz that seems to indicate there is no possibility for any resolution, anytime soon.

An audio recording of the Majlis can be heard here:

Majlis Podcast: What Is Happening In Kunduz, And Why Again?
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Listen to or download the Majlis podcast above or subscribe to Majlis on iTunes.

The views expressed in this podcast do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.

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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.



Majlis Podcast: The Backlash Against Art -- And Feminism -- In Kyrgyzstan
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