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Kyrgyzstan/Kazakhstan: Water Used As Leverage In Dispute

By Bruce Pannier and Naryn Idinov

Prague, 1 June 1999 (RFE/RL) -- A potentially dangerous precedent was set in Central Asia last week -- the cutting off of water was used as pressure in a bilateral dispute. Kyrgyzstan shut off water supplies to parts of southern Kazakhstan in an attempt to force that country to fulfill a promise to provide coal.

Kyrgyz First Deputy Prime Minister Boris Silayev announced the cut off, saying that Kazakhstan had not fulfilled a promise to deliver 560,000 tons of coal as compensation for Kyrgyzstan maintaining reservoirs which guarantee water to the region. The announcement also came a week after Kazakhstan's Intergaz company shut off natural gas supplies to northern Kyrgyzstan because of non-payment.

Water service to Kazakhstan was later restored after Kazakh officials promised to send a delegation to Kyrgyzstan this month (June). In the meantime, Silayev said over the weekend that Kazakhstan had agreed to resume coal deliveries ahead of the talks.

And so from Bishkek's perspective, the point had been made. In a region where 90 percent of the land is arid, using water as leverage can be effective.

Relations between the five CIS Central Asian states have become increasingly complicated since independence. Nowhere is this more clear than in the politics surrounding the region's energy and natural resources.

During Soviet times, the region's energy system was relatively unified. Soviet planners devised a network of power sources, with gas pipelines bringing fuel from Uzbekistan to Kyrgyzstan and with Kyrgyz hydroelectricity supplies going to both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

The system seemed a good idea in the days when all the countries were part of the Soviet Union, but it is a source of problems today.

Kyrgyz officials say they do not have enough money to pay for the upkeep of rivers and dams to supply water to fields in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. They say the other countries should be required to help with maintenance costs.

At a meeting last year of representatives from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, it was agreed that southern Kyrgyzstan would receive some of its gas free from Uzbekistan. In addition, Kazakhstan would ship 560,000 tons of coal annually to northern Kyrgyzstan. In return for these steps and a modest financial contribution, Kyrgyzstan was responsible for maintaining the rivers.

It is fair to say none of the parties lived up to that agreement. Kyrgyzstan allowed a reservoir to fill too high last summer. It later flooded, leaving 80 people dead in Uzbekistan. Uzbekistan, in turn, says Kyrgyzstan owes it for past deliveries of natural gas and has shut off gas pipelines four times in six months. Kazakhstan has not shipped coal to Kyrgyzstan as it was obliged to do.

Water is logically Kyrgyzstan's trump card, but it also sets a dangerous precedent.

Threatening to leave two major agricultural regions of Kazakhstan without water as summer nears has apparently proven to be an effective means for Kyrgyzstan to make Kazakhstan deliver coal. But in a region familiar with the phrase "water is life," it is also a tactic that may significantly strain ties.