Accessibility links

Breaking News

Kyrgyzstan/Uzbekistan: The Politics Of Water

Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan; 14 October 1997 (RFE/RL) -- In Soviet times, it was easy. Kyrgyzstan's mountains held the water and Uzbekistan's fields the cotton.

So year after year, the State Planning Commission (Gosplan) in Moscow ordered Kyrgyzstan to empty most of its reservoirs to water Uzbekistan's plantations of "white gold." The Uzbek harvest filled the Kremlin's coffers and Moscow made sure that Kyrgyzstan received just enough in compensation subsidies to keep the operation going.

After the Soviet Union fell apart at the end of 1991, and both states gained their independence, the deal lost much of its appeal to the Kyrgyz. They continued to provide their water, free of charge, to Uzbekistan, but now received no subsidies from Moscow. By contrast, Uzbekistan began to grow richer, since it no longer had to deliver any of its cotton profits to the Kremlin.

Relations between the two neighbors grew strained as Kyrgyzstan began to demand payment for its water. Uzbekistan balked and threatened to cut off gas and coal deliveries. After some acrimony, the two countries reached an informal barter agreement three years ago, under which Uzbekistan agreed to provide Kyrgyzstan with winter heat and electricity in exchange for water during the summer growing season.

But Duishen Mamatkhanov, director of Kyrgyzstan's Institute of Hydroenergy, says the arrangement must be revised. Speaking to RFE/RL in Bishkek, Mamatkhanov said the time has come to treat water as "any other valuable commodity -- something that can be bought and sold, for a real market price." According to Mamatkhanov, it is absurd that Kyrgyzstan is currently unable to freely dispose of its most abundant and valuable resource.

Of the 50,000 million cubic meters of water that Kyrgyzstan's lakes and reservoirs collect each year, only 12,000 million cubic meters remain in the country, he noted. While Uzbekistan uses Kyrgyzstan's water to irrigate 1,600,000 hectares of fields each summer, Kyrgyzstan itself can irrigate less than half a million hectares for its own agricultural needs, Mamatkhanov said. And because most of the water is delivered to Uzbekistan is the summer, Kyrgyzstan must wait until autumn and winter to produce its own hydroelectric energy.

This is both costly and insufficient, forcing Kyrgyzstan to rely on imported electricity from Uzbekistan to make up the shortfall. Mamatkhanov also said that Uzbekistan makes no contribution to his country's upkeep of dams and mountain weather stations which monitor water levels.

For all of these reasons, Kyrgyzstan wants to rework the arrangement, to allow it to keep more of its water and sell the rest for hard cash. It wants the same principle to be established with its other neighbor, Kazakhstan, which also siphons off Kyrgyzstan's water, albeit in lesser quantities.

Mamatkhanov and his colleagues have already put a price on each cubic meter of their precious water and drawn up a sealed plan which has been put before President Askar Akayev.

So far, Akayev has taken no action. The matter is delicate, and the president and the government are loath to comment. Deputy Prime Minister Karimsher Abdimunov acknowledged there is a problem, but told RFE/RL in Bishkek that "the matter will be resolved in a civilized way."

Opposition legislator Dooronbek Sadyrbayev warns that unless it wants to freeze this winter, Kyrgyzstan will have to come to a friendly agreement with its neighbors, especially Uzbekistan.

"If the Uzbeks want to play rough," he told RFE/RL, "there are a hundred ways they can make our life difficult, starting with new customs duties, as a small example."

But with water as its main exportable resource, Kyrgyzstan has little choice but to push for a new arrangement, observers say, though all acknowledge that this Soviet tangle won't be easy to undo.

(This article is one of a six-part series on Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.)