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In Central Asia, Water Could Lead To Fire

One of Tajikistan's reservoirs, critical for energy generation
One of Tajikistan's reservoirs, critical for energy generation
As Central Asia suffers the effects of global climate change, seeing less rainfall each year, the water shortage in the region is generating progressively greater attention -- and greater tensions between the region's governments.

The issue was at the center of a meeting last month in Dushanbe of officials from Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) member states. The organization's current secretary-general, Bolat Nurgaliev of Kazakhstan, warned that the water shortage could lead to terrorism and separatism.

Nurgaliev did not elaborate, but he may have been referring to an incident in March on the Kyrgyz-Tajik border. Some 150 residents of Tajikistan's Isfara district, led by district Governor Mukhiba Yokubova and accompanied by Tajik police, stormed across the border into Kyrgyzstan's Batken region and tried to destroy a dam built several years ago with financial support from the World Bank. The Tajiks intended to restore the direct water flow to their farms by destroying the dam on the Aksay River, which flows from Kyrgyzstan into Tajikistan and is a major source of irrigation water for Tajik farms in Isfara.

Yokubova criticized the Kyrgyz authorities and the World Bank for supporting the dam's construction, saying they had no legal right to do so because the territory in question was still disputed by the two countries.

The Water-Border Nexus

This is the first time any Central Asian official, even at the local level, has made a direct connection between the water issue and the border problem. Even though the major border issues among the five Central Asian states are officially said to have been solved, and the borders between them have been largely delimited on paper, not all those borders have been clearly demarcated on the ground. Consequently, inhabitants of border regions still have numerous questions, and sometimes do not know for sure which country they actually live in.

The water problem only complicates the issue. Every country in Central Asia has its own agenda regarding water use, which does not necessarily take into account the plans and needs of their neighbors.

Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are the smallest and poorest countries in the region. Unlike their neighbors, they do not have vast reserves of oil and natural gas. The only source of energy available to them is a major river, the Syr-Darya, which flows through the two countries to Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, where it flows into the Aral Sea. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan both store water from the Syr-Darya in reservoirs during the summer for use in winter to generate electricity.

But the drought in recent years means that water levels in Kyrgyzstan's Toktogul Reservoir are now at a record low. The Russian daily "Kommersant" predicted on July 22 that Kyrgyzstan will face an acute energy shortage this winter that could trigger a political crisis.

Meanwhile, major regional players Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, which can use domestic natural gas to supply electricity and heating in winter, need water from the Syr-Darya in the summer for their vast farms. Those two countries are therefore in competition for the limited amount of water from the Syr-Darya that Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan allow to flow to the north. This summer is no exception and Kazakh and Uzbek officials are at odds again.

The Shardara Reservoir is strategically located right on the Kazakh-Uzbek border -- and both ethnic-Uzbek farmers living on the Kazakh side and ethnic Kazakhs on the Uzbek side of the reservoir need water. Although it was officially announced several years ago that this section of the Kazakh-Uzbek border has been "successfully" delimited, local residents remember very well that for many years it was a major bone of contention between the two countries.

The water issue came to the fore last week when Kazakh Deputy Prime Minister Omirzak Shukeev sent an official telegram to his Uzbek counterpart Rustam Azimov urging him to take steps to regulate the flow of water from Uzbekistan to Kazakhstan via Kyrgyzstan. That move was nothing unexpected, but Shukeev used unusually harsh language -- almost a warning. And in an unprecedented move, Shukeev's telegram to Azimov was reprinted for public consumption in the official Kazakh media.

It appears that this year the Kazakh government leaked the content of its official telegram to the Uzbek deputy prime minister to the media in an attempt to convince the population that the situation is under control and there is therefore no need for any incursion onto Uzbek territory to lay claim to either water or land. After all, a standoff of that kind between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan could have far more serious consequences than the March events in southern Kyrgyzstan.

Merhat Sharipzhan is senior editor of Headline News at RFE/RL and the former head of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.

RFE/RL Central Asia Report

RFE/RL Central Asia Report

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