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Central Asia Report: February 16, 2004

16 February 2004, Volume 4, Number 7

TEST OF REGIONAL COOPERATION AS SYR DARYA OVERFLOWS. In recent weeks the Syr Darya River has burst its banks, submerging fields and settlements near the Uzbek-Kazakh border in the region's worst floods since 1969. The rising waters are partly due to unseasonably heavy rain over the winter, but the major reason lies in the Central Asian states' longstanding inability to manage their shared water resources in a coordinated and rational manner. The floods of 2004 are both an argument for better regional cooperation in the future, and a reproof to governments for discounting it in the past. More immediately, the floods are proving a test of whether the Central Asian states really can sink their differences in an emergency and individually make compromises to solve a regional problem. The answer appears to be that they can cooperate, reluctantly -- but they have to be in pretty deep waters first.

The root of the problem is Kyrgyzstan's Toktogul Reservoir, which largely controls the source of the Naryn River, which in turn is one of the major sources of the Syr Darya River. Kyrgyzstan releases water from Toktogul to generate hydroelectricity, for which the greatest need is in winter. Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan have no use for large flows in winter but need water in spring and summer to irrigate croplands. Under the Soviet Union a central authority managed flows for the combined benefit of the region, but since 1991 the primary objectives of Kyrgyzstan (maximizing water utilization to produce power) and of downstream users (maximizing water utilization for irrigation) have been fundamentally at odds. In recent years Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan have sought to help Kyrgyzstan meet its energy needs over the winter with supplies of natural gas, coal, and fuel oil, in exchange for which Kyrgyzstan has promised to reduce water discharges. But as the Institute of War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) commented on 6 February, "the arrangement has never worked well, as the participants tend to break the rules whenever they perceive they are losing out."

Already in the final days of 2003 it became apparent that excessive water discharges by Kyrgyzstan had put the Chardara Reservoir, which straddles the Uzbek-Kazakh border (ShardaraReservoir in Kazakh), in imminent danger of overflowing and potentially destroying its dam. This is the crisis that Central Asian governments have been struggling to address.

The first attempt to coordinate a solution was on 4 January, when high-level delegations from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan met in Shymkent in South Kazakhstan Oblast. A protocol signed after the talks assigned a role to each of the countries to avert crisis. Kyrgyzstan pledged to reduce its hydroelectric output (and thus water emissions from Toktogul Reservoir), making up the difference by increasing power generation in its thermal plants. Kazakhstan agreed to supply Kyrgyzstan with fuel oil and coal to keep the thermal plants going at least through January. Uzbekistan promised to ease pressure on the Chardara Reservoir by taking water from there into its nearby Arnasai Reservoir. The three delegations also agreed to set up a working group to regulate the flow of the Syr Darya (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 January 2004).

On 12 January, officials from the three countries, now joined by representatives of Tajikistan, met in the Uzbek capital Tashkent to reassess the situation. Problems with implementing the protocol had already emerged. While Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan were reportedly fulfilling their sides of the agreement, Kazakh media were complaining that the Uzbeks were not doing their part to let water into the Arnasai Reservoir, and furthermore refusing to explain why not (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 January 2004). According to Khabar Television on 18 January, the flow into Arnasai was 350 cubic meters per second (cu.m/s), not 650 cu.m/s as agreed. Uzbekistan had also undertaken to divert 350 cu.m/s of water into its irrigation channels along the Syr Darya, but was only taking half that amount, Kazakh officials told the television.

Meanwhile it was reported that the water volume in the Chardara Reservoir, with a capacity of 5.2 billion cubic meters, had reached 4.7 billion cubic meters by the second week of January, and that Kazakh water engineers had started opening sluices to discharge water from the dam into the Syr Darya River. Khabar Television reported that the flow into the river was already 700 cubic meters per second, double the rate in past years. It quoted the chief of the Chardara hydropower station, Kudaybergen Yerzhan, as saying that his engineers were operationally bound to open all the sluices if there was a danger of the dam bursting. The problem with discharging water into the Syr Darya is the following. Although an additional 700 cubic meters per second is not sufficient volume, by itself, to place the river in danger of seriously overflowing, the Syr Darya can partially freeze over. Ice narrows its flow; therefore, a big enough drop in temperature, combined with the ongoing discharges from the reservoir, would make a flood inevitable. If, on the other hand, the dam broke, some 50,000 people in Kazakhstan's Shardara Raion would be the first to be affected, according to the chairman of the raion emergency commission, Panzarbek Oskenali (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 January 2004). Yerzhan predicted that if water started spilling over the dam "all settlements within 100 kilometers could be wiped out" and some 65,000 hectares of agricultural land would be lost, IWPR said on 6 February. To alleviate pressure on the reservoir, Tajik representatives at the 12 January meeting offered to hold more water from the Syr Darya in the Qayroqqum Reservoir in Tajikistan's northern Sughd Oblast. The following day in Kyrgyzstan's capital Bishkek the country's Deputy Prime Minister Bazarbai Mambetov told a news briefing that the crisis would accelerate the formation of a transnational water consortium, adding that Kazakhstan, Russia, and Kyrgyzstan were eager to form such a group as soon as possible, reported.

The first reports of flooding came soon afterward. On 21 January the Uzbek newspaper "Pravda vostoka" said the waters of Lake Aydarkul in Navoi Oblast had inundated much of the Navoi-Boymurod highway and surrounding pasturelands, and threatened settlements in two provinces. Teams were working around the clock to construct a 2.4-kilometer dam. The paper blamed the flooding on Kazakhstan, which it said had been draining off water from the Chardara Reservoir into Lake Aydarkul since the end of last year. Then, on 23 January, Khabar Television reported that the level of the Syr Darya near Baikonur, site of Kazakhstan's space-launch program, had risen two meters in recent months. Some electricity pylons had been flooded, and the waters were within a meter of threatening the sewage system, the television said. At the same time local news agencies reported dam-building going on across Kazakhstan's Qyzyl-Orda Oblast. Some 30 villages along the Syr Darya's left bank in the South Kazakhstan and Qyzyl-Orda regions were reckoned to be in threat of flooding.

Kazakh legislators signaled their concern at the situation when the Mazhilis (lower house of parliament) on 28 January adopted an appeal to the presidents and parliaments of Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan to help save the Chardara Reservoir (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 January 2004). Yet Uzbekistan was not exerting itself to be helpful, according to the Kazakh newspaper "Express-K" in a 28 February article titled "There Are All Kinds of Neighbors." The newspaper alleged that, on the initiative of the Kazakh government, another three-way meeting of water officials to address latest developments had been scheduled to take place in Tashkent on 26 February, but the Uzbeks had scuppered it. Tashkent had still not made good on its promise to open Arnasai to take more of the water load and was said to be considering the request. Meanwhile, "Express-K" reported ominously that the Chardara Reservoir was still filling up at a rate of about 10 million cubic meters per day, and would overflow by the beginning of March.

In the first week of February the temperature fell and the Syr Darya, as many had feared, began to freeze over. Local weather reports mentioned as much as 35 centimeters of partial ice cover. As water spilled over its banks, many of the dams erected in Qyzyl-Orda Oblast were reportedly washed away and the authorities scrambled to rebuild them. On 4 February, Viktor Dukhovnii, vice president of the International Commission on Irrigation and Drainage and one of Tashkent's top water experts, wrote in "Pravda vostoka" that roads, electricity lines, and pasturelands in Uzbekistan's Navoi and Jizzak oblasts were under water. On 7 February, Khabar Television reported that water had reached Kazakh villages around the town of Qyzyl-Orda, some of which were now only accessible by boat, and the Samara-Shymkent highway was imperiled.

Uzbekistan waited until 8 February to inform Kazakhstan that it would let several hundred million extra cubic meters of water into the Arnasai Reservoir from the Chardara Reservoir, reported. (By this time the water in Chardara had risen to 4.9 billion cubic meters, or 94 percent of its capacity.) The relief on the Kazakh side was palpable. The chairman of the committee for water resources at the Kazakh Agriculture Ministry,Antolii Ryabtsev, told the cameras on 9 February that the Chardara dam would hold and Qyzyl-Orda Oblast was no longer threatened by flooding. But his words were belied by television reports the same day that said more than 1,300 people had been evacuated from the area. On 13 February, ITAR-TASS and RFE/RL reported that some 340 houses were submerged and over 2,000 people had been evacuated from the flood plain, with more thousands under imminent threat in Zhalagash and Sarkand raions.

Against this background the deputy prime ministers of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan and their water management officials convened in Bishkek on 11 February to review the situation (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 February 2004). According to, the first part of the meeting was taken up with mutual recriminations among participants for failing to implement promised measures. Kazakh Deputy Prime Minister Akhmedzhan Yesimov accused Kyrgyzstan of not decreasing the outflow from the Toktogul Reservoir to 500 cu.m/s, as agreed in the protocol signed in January. Yesimov said the rate had actually only dropped to 547 cu.m/s (a cumulative difference of over 150 million cubic meters of water). Uzbek Deputy Prime Minister Otkir Sultanov also laid into Kyrgyzstan, saying that it had ignored warnings to reduce water discharges during the winter for at least seven years. And he implied that Kyrgyzstan was irresponsibly profiteering -- generating hydroelectricity not only for its own needs in winter, but to sell to Kazakhstan. The latter bought 1 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity from Kyrgyzstan in 2003. "This represents 1.2 billion cubic meters of water -- the surplus in the Chardara Reservoir," Sultanov concluded, thus subtly implicating the Kazakhs as well in causing the crisis. (Later in the meeting, Sagynbek Dordoev, the director of the company that manages Kyrgyzstan's power grid, retorted that Uzbekistan had also imported a substantial amount of Kyrgyz electricity in 2003.)

Kyrgyz Deputy Prime Minister Bazarbai Mambetov rejected the charges brought against his country. He insisted that the outflow of water had successfully been brought down to 500 cu.m/s, and said that electricity supplies to the Kyrgyz population were cut 20 percent as a result. He acknowledged receipt of coal and fuel from Kazakhstan to power the Bishkek thermal plant, but noted that generating electricity at the plant was over 33 times more expensive than generating it at Toktogul. "Who will compensate us for these losses?" quoted Mambetov as saying. His Kazakh counterpart Yesimov said his country gave Kyrgyzstan $1.4 million to help cover costs. But the Kyrgyz side also said they faced some basic physical constraints due to the capacity of the Togtokul Reservoir. On the one hand, Sultanov and the Uzbek delegation were pressing Kyrgyzstan to release less water -- even less than the 500 cu.m/s promised in the protocol -- saying that otherwise the system of downstream reservoirs could not cope. On the other hand, the Kyrgyz delegation explained that holding too much water spelled disaster for the system of upstream reservoirs. Even at a discharge rate of 500 cu.m/s, according to Dordoev, the water level in the Toktogul Reservoir (with a capacity of 19.5 billion cubic meters) would steadily rise and start overflowing by July 2004. To make matters worse, while continued cold meant more ice on the Syr Darya and associated overflows downstream, warmer weather meant additional inflows into Toktogul and pressure on the upstream reservoir system as the mountain snows melted. "The spring snow melt, as forecast by our meteorologists, will beenormous and will demand great efforts to cope with it," RFE/RL quoted Mambetov as saying on 11 February. "Thepossibility of breaks [in dams] and flooding from theSyr Darya, as we know, is huge."

The four-party agreement to emerge from the talks was contained in a new protocol, and its implementation was to be overseen by an intergovernmental working group until 17 March, Khabar news agency reported. Kyrgyzstan pledged to keep discharges from Toktogul to 500 cu.m/s, as it had pledged to do one month previously. Uzbekistan agreed to take 450 cu.m/s of water into Arnasai, but only starting 20 February. It also reiterated its promise from January to draw 350 cu.m/s of water from the river into its irrigation canals. Kazakhstan said it would continue discharging water from Chardara into the Syr Darya at a rate of 700 cu.m/s, while diverting 200 cu.m/s of water from the river into side channels. Comparing with revised agreement with the original protocol from January, Kyrgyzstan's promises stayed the same, the Uzbeks promised less, and the Kazakhs promised more.

Lastly, Tajikistan on 11 February agreed to immediately reduce its own discharges from its Qayroqqum Reservoir. The Syr Darya actually passes through this body of water. In the first week of February the Tajiks, far from helping to defuse the crisis, were contributing to it by discharging large additional amounts of water for their own hydroelectric purposes. According to measurements by angry water officials in downstream Kazakhstan, the Tajiks had started releasing up to 1,500 cu.m/s of water for a day at a time, IRIN reported on 6 February. In line with the new four-party agreement, the maximum water discharge allowed from Qayroqqum will be 950 cu.m/s.

Participants at the Bishkek talks declared that they were largely satisfied with the outcome. Afterward Deputy Prime Minister Yesimov traveled to Tashkent on 12 February for bilateral follow-up talks with Uzbek Prime Minister Shavkat Mirzayoev. Yesimov told journalists that he sought to enlist the help of the Uzbek government in ensuring the agreements reached in Bishkek would be implemented (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 February 2004). Evidently tensions still persisted, however. Yesimov said the Kazakh and Uzbek sides had not reached "full mutual understanding." The upshot was that Kazakhstan was giving serious consideration to building an additional, back-up reservoir at Kok-Saray on the lower Syr Darya to absorb excess water, Khabar Television reported on 12 February. Yesimov acknowledged that Kazakhstan's neighbors objected when notified of its intention to construct it.

On 14 February, Uzbek President Islam Karimov took the extraordinary step of writing an open letter on the water crisis to his Kazakh counterpart Nursultan Nazarbaev. In the letter, posted the following day on, Karimov firmly blamed Kyrgyzstan for the current situation. He accused it of uncontrolled and unwise water management, and violating previous agreements on regional water sharing (presumably those signed in 1992 and 1998) "by operating the reservoir for the purposes of power generation rather than for irrigation." "Furthermore, now Kyrgyzstan is concluding agreements to supply electricity from [Togtokul] reservoir via Kazakhstan to Russia," Karimov warned. In contrast to this provocative portrayal of Kyrgyzstan as irresponsible and mercenary, the Uzbek president stressed that his own country recognized the seriousness of the situation and was taking a noble, even self-sacrificing course. "Responding to your appeal, the Uzbek side is undertaking an additional commitment to increase the water intake into the Arnasai Reservoir from 450 cu.m/s to 750 cu.m/s," he wrote, "even though we are fully aware that such an increase in water discharge will lead to flooding of lands in the Arnasai depression and that emergency measures will be necessary to protect the villages of Baymurat, Koshquduq, Darbaza, and others." The dangers of flooding are presumably why the Uzbeks were reluctant for so long to take more water into Arnasai and refused to discuss it at the 12 January meeting.