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Central Asia: OSCE Seeks Agreement On Water

One of the biggest problems in Central Asia is the management of trans-boundary water resources. Some countries have enough water but few other resources. Others have oil and gas but limited water resources. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, is now trying to persuade the five Central Asian states to cooperate in managing the problem -- but Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have their own ideas.

Tashkent, 5 June 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The chairwoman of the OSCE, Austrian Foreign Minister Benita Ferrero-Waldner, went to Central Asia last week. One goal of her visit was to persuade the five countries to meet in London at the end of the year to discuss how the region's water resources could be used for the good of all.

When she left Tashkent at the end of her tour, Ferrero-Waldner knew it would not be possible to convene the conference this year. Two of the five countries are reluctant to have anything to do with the water project.

Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan favor the conference. But the presidents of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan said they prefer to handle the problem on a bilateral basis and rejected the multilateral approach proposed by the OSCE.

The OSCE chairwoman told RFE/RL she now believes it could be one or two years before the conference is held. In the meantime, OSCE will organize working groups and other meetings to try to persuade Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan to join the others at the talks.

All the upstream countries, she said, want a solution to the problem. She said they don't want to stick to the old solutions from the communist era. That's why when the proposed conference finally does take place, it will deal with all aspects of the water problem -- how the water should be shared, the building of storage dams, the use of hydroelectric power, and irrigation.

Officials traveling with the OSCE chairwoman said her negotiations in both Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan were difficult. The reaction of Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov was described as cold. He said he does not believe an international conference in London is the right way to handle the matter. Ferrero-Waldner:

"The OSCE thought it would be good to tackle this on a regional level. But Turkmenistan thinks it should be touched only on a bilateral level. We could not have a consensus of views here."

The officials said Uzbek President Islam Karimov told the OSCE chairwoman that his country had a thousand years of experience in managing its water problems. He told her that he also preferred bilateral discussions instead of a multilateral conference.

Nevertheless, the foreign ministers of both countries have been invited to visit OSCE headquarters in Vienna to discuss the proposals with experts on water management. The OSCE says it hopes the water problems can also be discussed on the sidelines of a summit meeting in Tashkent in October. That meeting has been called primarily to discuss how to tackle the enormous problem of drug smuggling in Central Asia and security issues.

Ferrero-Waldner said the OSCE is not trying to lecture the two reluctant states. In her words: "We are only advising on something we think could be good for the whole region."

Neither Turkmenistan nor Uzbekistan attended a seminar on trans-boundary water resources organized by the OSCE in Almaty last November. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan did participate. However some slight progress was made at a recent meeting of the five deputy water ministers in Nukes, a city in Uzbekistan located near the dying Aral Sea.

The OSCE is not the only international organization working with the five Central Asian states to overcome the problems in reaching a water-sharing agreement. The World Bank, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and other international bodies have also offered ideas.

International experts say one important issue is what the water-rich states should get in return for sharing their waters.

That is a sensitive issue in Kyrgyzstan, which is rich in water but has few other natural resources to boost the lagging economy. One Kyrgyz expert told journalists traveling with the OSCE chairwoman that some people in Kyrgyzstan are already asking why they should give away their water.

The expert (who asked not to be identified) said some people have suggested that Kyrgyzstan should block the flow of water to other countries unless it is compensated. He said only a minority made such comments, but that it illustrated the tensions that can arise unless the problem is solved.

A widely-read environmental report issued last year noted that Uzbekistan's agriculture depends heavily on the water-intensive cotton yield. The report said this had occasionally caused tensions with upstream states such as Kyrgyzstan.

The OSCE chairwoman described the management of transboundary water resources as "one of the fundamental environmental issues in the region." She said the OSCE hopes that Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan will eventually come to agree that it can be best tackled by all five states working together for the common good.