Nov 12, 2012 | 11:30 GMT

8 mins read

Central Asia's Looming Conflict Over Water, Part 1: The Upriver Countries

A picture taken on November 14, 2018 shows a general view of the Rogun hydro-electric dam on the Vakhsh River in southern Tajikistan.
(-/AFP/Getty Images)

Two of Central Asia's poorest countries, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, are attempting to leverage one of their few geographic advantages — control over the headwaters of two major regional rivers — to build new hydropower dams. The proposed dams, which were originally drawn up by the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s, offer the prospect of boosting electricity production both for domestic use and potentially for export to neighboring states.

Financing for the dams has not yet been secured, though Russia has periodically offered some assistance to each country. However, if the projects do proceed, the already tense relations are likely to become even more fraught between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan and their richer downriver neighbors, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, which depend on the rivers' waters. While military confrontations are unlikely in the near term, any developments that jeopardize the downriver countries' water supply could prompt a harsh response.

Under the Soviet Union, Central Asia was split into five Soviet republics. All administrative matters in these republics were decided by Moscow, including how the individual republics used and distributed their natural resources. When the Soviet Union dissolved in December 1991, the former republics (now independent states) kept their Soviet-imposed borders, even though they were explicitly designed by Moscow to keep any one state from becoming powerful or independent enough to challenge the Kremlin's central authority. Consequently, these countries are dependent on one another for their natural resources and energy needs, which is a challenge now that each individual country, rather than Moscow, is responsible for managing those resources.

Resource Competition in Central Asia

Portions of the Central Asian steppe — especially Uzbekistan — were endowed with fertile soil and favorable weather patterns, making them well suited for agriculture, though the arid land requires irrigation. To create agricultural zones and provide sufficient water for other uses in Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, the Soviet Union constructed extensive irrigation networks to redirect water from Central Asia's two largest rivers, the Syr Darya originating in Tajikistan and the Amu Darya originating in Kyrgyzstan.

Water diversion measures combined with inefficient infrastructure and general overuse have caused the rivers' drainage point, the Aral Sea, to lose about 75 percent of its water volume since the 1960s and become increasingly saline. This has reduced the sea's ability to provide a moderating effect on temperatures and has resulted in the desertification of the surrounding areas. Considering the increasing demand on and the possible reduction of the rivers' glacial sources, the already-strained water situation in the region looks set to grow tenser in the coming years.

Former Soviet republics now independent states) are dependent on one another for their natural resources and energy needs, which is a challenge now that each individual country, rather than Moscow, is responsible for managing those resources.

This is the context under which Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan hope to build two new hydropower plants that could further reduce the water flow to downriver countries. Bishkek and Dushanbe want the power plants to expand their electrical production capacity, which could lessen their energy dependence on downstream countries, especially natural gas from Uzbekistan. These projects could eventually even allow the countries to export excess energy to China, Afghanistan and Pakistan if the necessary infrastructure is built, which would be extremely valuable for the two historically poor countries.

Proposed Hydroelectric Projects

Kyrgyzstan's proposed Kambarata-1 hydropower plant would be built on the Naryn River, a tributary of the Syr Darya, while Tajikistan's proposed Rogun hydropower plant would be built on the Vakhsh River, a tributary of the Amu Darya. These are two of the largest hydroelectric projects ever planned in Central Asia, with potential generating capacities of 1,900 megawatts and 3,600 megawatts, respectively.

Kambarata-1 and Rogun were designed by the Soviets to improve water management in Central Asia. Two significant sources of the region's river water are snowmelt and glacial thaw, and thus the flow slows in the winter months while becoming more rapid when temperatures heat up in the summer. Kambarata-1 and Rogun are designed to be able to better control the fluctuation of water flow by retaining water in reservoirs and releasing it when it is most needed. But this introduces competing goals for reservoir use: While the downriver areas need more water in the summer to irrigate their crops, the upriver regions require more water in the winter to generate hydroelectricity.

Both proposed dam projects have received external funding to carry out feasibility studies, but the estimated high costs of the dams make it impossible for Dushanbe and Bishkek to pay for them on their own. Kambarata-1 will cost an estimated $2-4 billion, while Rogun is projected at $2-3 billion. Considering Kyrgystan's gross domestic product was $5.9 billion in 2011 and Tajikistan's was $6.5 billion, foreign investment will be essential for the projects. Russia has proposed creating a joint-stock company with Kyrgyzstan to build Kambarata-1 and also paid for its feasibility study. But while Kyrgyz President Almaz Atambayev said construction would begin by spring 2013, the funding needed to begin, much less complete, the project has yet to materialize.

Water Resources in Central Asia

Water Resources in Central Asia

In the past, Russia has backed out on promises to fund such projects in Central Asia. At the end of 2004, Russian aluminum company RUSAL expressed interest in finishing construction of Tajikistan's Rogun hydropower plant, which the Soviets had begun in 1976 but never completed. RUSAL pulled out of the project, ostensibly over disagreements regarding the design of the dam and how much electricity should be allocated for residential versus industrial use. The actual reason for the withdrawal, however, was that Russia did not want to seriously provoke Uzbekistan by building a hydropower plant of such size.

Since then, however, the project has been revived. Projected to become the world's tallest dam if it is built to Tajikistan's specifications, Rogun is currently undergoing its second feasibility study, funded by the World Bank. The Tajik government raised less than $200 million for the project by forcing citizens to buy shares in it. But the rest of the $2 billion needed to build the project will likely have to come from foreign investment. Whether the funding for either dam comes from Russia will likely depend on how far the Kremlin feels it can push Uzbekistan rather than how interested it is in being a stakeholder in these two hydroelectric power plants.

While neither project will likely be completed in the near future, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan have all expressed their concerns about how these new hydropower dams could affect them. These countries are worried that if the dams are built, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan will hoard water in reservoirs during the summer months (when the downriver agricultural regions need it most) so the upriver countries can release it in the winter to generate hydroelectric power.

If the Rogun dam were to be built, it could affect the Vakhsh River's water flow — but this impact would likely not be felt for years. Some estimates indicate it could take more than a decade to fill Rogun's reservoir, during which time the river would probably only experience an estimated 1-2 percent reduction in its water flow, with less water lost the slower it is filled. Once the reservoir is filled, however, downriver countries could expect a worst-case scenario (where the dam is generating full electricity) of an estimated 18 percent reduction in water flow during the summer months and an estimated 54 percent increase in water flow in the winter, which could cause flooding downriver depending on how Tajikistan decides to control the timing of water release.

While dam-related variations in water flow are unlikely to become an issue in the near future, since the completion of these projects is many years off, the three downstream countries have already expressed their hostility to the projects. If the two hydroelectric power plants come closer to fruition, economic and political tensions between the upriver and downriver countries would almost certainly escalate. Uzbekistan in particular is capable of cutting off natural gas exports to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Military confrontations, while unlikely, could not be ruled out since a dramatic decline in water supplies could force the downriver countries to respond as a matter of national security. This could risk inviting retaliation from larger powers like Russia, which has extensive economic and security interests in Central Asia and wants to prevent any of the countries there, particularly Uzbekistan, from emerging as a regional hegemon.

Looking Ahead

The likelihood that Kambarata-1 or Rogun will be built is contingent on each project acquiring the foreign financing that Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are seeking. If either project receives the necessary funding, Bishkek and Dushanbe are still years away from developing a substantial hydropower industry. Still, tensions in the region over water supplies will likely continue to escalate, especially if downriver countries perceive a serious and imminent threat to their water supplies.

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