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UN Chief Urges Central Asians To Resolve Water Issues

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon visits the "ship cemetery" in Muynak, a former port city on the Aral Sea in Uzbekistan.
(RFE/RL) -- UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon arrived in Tajikistan and plunged directly into the most controversial topic in Central Asia -- water.

Ban said water has already been a primary issue in conversations with leaders in Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan.

"The question is how to use common resources for common prosperity," Ban said.

Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan do not have the hydrocarbon resources their Central Asian neighbors have and the two mountainous countries suffer chronic energy shortages that are particularly noticeable in winter months.

The solution to their energy problem seems to be developing hydropower potential, which is enormous in both countries.

But downstream countries, Uzbekistan in particular, oppose plans to build immense hydropower plants in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan because of fears water released from reservoirs in winter for electricity will lead to insufficient amounts of water for irrigation downstream in spring and summer.

As Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have gone ahead with their hydropower projects, Uzbekistan has grown increasingly anxious and critical of the projects. Uzbekistan has tried to enlist the support of two other downstream countries, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan.

Ban today noted the tensions and urged the Central Asian countries to cooperate in use of resources.

"That is why I am visiting Central Asia, before tensions grow worse," Ban said. "Whether it is oil and natural gas or water, these resources should be used fairly and harmoniously, respecting the interests of neighboring countries."

Importance Of Mediation

The focus of Uzbekistan's objections is Tajikistan's Roghun dam project. The Tajik government has advertised it as a key to energy independence and for months has been encouraging the public to invest in its construction.

Tashkent recently stopped freight cars bound for Tajikistan, in part, Dushanbe says, because they were carrying some construction material for Roghun. Ban said he was "deeply concerned" about the dispute.

Ban urged patience from all five countries, pointing out that an environmental assessment team from the World Bank would soon be in the region to start work.

"Therefore all parties concerned should refrain from unilateral actions until the World Bank has concluded its technical assessment of Tajikistan's proposed hydropower projects," Ban said.

Tajikistan seems to have a slightly different interpretation of how the World Bank is approaching Central Asia's water issue. Tajik Foreign Minister Hamrakhon Zarifi said not just Tajik hydropower projects need to be evaluated.

Zarifi said that Tajik President Emomali Rahmon told Ban "that there is need of serious and competent international environmental expertise of all irrigation systems in Central Asia, including all existing reservoirs and other diversions that have a negative impact on the environment."

Some Tajik experts have argued that their neighbor's frivolous use of water is responsible for water shortages in downstream countries, while Uzbek experts argue the problems of water use start in upstream countries.

Ban mentioned the UN's Center for Preventative Diplomacy, located in Turkmenistan, as a vehicle for helping resolve Central Asia's water problems. Turkmenistan was Ban's first stop on his current Central Asian tour and the center was among the first places Ban visited.

RFE/RL's Tajik Service contributed to this report