Central Asia's Looming Conflict Over Water, Part 2: The Downriver Countries

6 MINS READNov 13, 2012 | 11:15 GMT
Central Asia's Looming Conflict Over Water, Part 2: The Downriver Countries
The Kokaral dam in Kazakhstan on the Aral Sea

Even before Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan began their recent push to build hydroelectric dams along Central Asia's two main rivers, downriver countries were coping with water scarcity challenges caused by increased demand and inefficient agricultural practices. Adjusting irrigation techniques in Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan could partially mitigate these problems, but political and economic difficulties in these countries — especially the latter two — appear likely to stymie any progress. The persistence of water competition in Central Asia has already increased regional tensions and could eventually escalate to armed conflict if the situation goes unaddressed.

Shared but limited water resources are always potential catalysts for regional disputes, especially if those resources are mismanaged. However, the developing conflict involving the Aral Sea basin is unique due to its relatively recent emergence since the fall of the Soviet Union — an event that left Central Asian countries to resolve such issues on their own without mandates from Moscow for the first time in nearly a century.

Origins of the Scarcity Issue

During the Soviet era, the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya rivers, which feed into the Aral Sea, were tapped for irrigation. The two rivers are sourced largely from snowmelt and glacial thaw in the mountains of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, keeping flows from the rivers' headwaters relatively consistent over the past 50 years. However, large-scale irrigation schemes geared toward cotton production have prevented water from reaching the Aral Sea, causing its volume to decrease by about 75 percent since the 1960s.

The future appears even more uncertain. Reliable environmental information about the region is difficult to acquire, since many monitoring stations fell into disrepair after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Still, there appears to be consensus that temperatures in the region are rising slightly, a change that could cause the glaciers to melt at a faster rate than previously recorded and reduce the annual average river flow by 15 percent or more by 2050.

While it is impossible to know with any certainty whether the glaciers will retreat as predicted, demand from downstream countries is projected to increase. Agriculture — the sector that consumes the most water — continues to use inefficient irrigation methods; more than 50 percent of allocated water is lost to evaporation or seepage into the ground in improperly lined irrigation canals.

Despite ongoing concerns about water scarcity, agriculture remains an important part of the economies of downstream states. Uzbekistan, in particular, depends heavily on continued cotton production. The country is one of the world's top 10 cotton exporters and the crop is one of Uzbekistan's largest sources of revenue from exports. Uzbekistan uses more water from the Aral Sea basin for irrigation than any other country in Central Asia, directing it mainly to the Fergana Valley. However, this area is particularly vulnerable to strife because its borders are arranged in a way that exacerbates the region's numerous ethnic and clan divisions — another legacy of the Soviet era.

In Turkmenistan, the Mary clan, which dominates agriculture and the illicit drug trade along the Karakum canal, has no official role in the government, and a decline in water supply could embolden them to pressure Ashgabat. To a certain extent, all Central Asian countries deal with ethnic discord, and their stability is highly dependent on maintaining or expanding water access. Consequently, these countries have an interest in finding ways to reverse their bleak resource outlook.

Options for Modernizing Water Use

Regardless of whether Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are able to build their proposed hydroelectric dam projects, downriver countries will have some ability to mitigate water issues through the improvement of irrigation systems. Currently, the region's irrigation and canal systems are extremely inefficient and in need of maintenance, which has been lacking in both Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Additionally, improper use of irrigation has led to increased salinity in the ground, which decreases the quality of the soil and can lower crop yields.

Some potential irrigation improvements include lining canals and ditches with concrete or newer synthetic materials, repairing or replacing Soviet-era equipment and implementing techniques such as drip irrigation. Each of these methods could decrease water usage. Though highly unlikely given cotton's economic importance to Uzbekistan, the region could also switch from cotton to crops that require less water.

Irrigated Land in Central Asia

Irrigated Land in Central Asia

However, the political and economic situations in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan could prevent widespread improvement in the water distribution system. Improvements to the system would likely require both foreign funding and foreign expertise to implement. Due in part to their hydrocarbon reserves, the downriver countries are richer than Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, but they are still quite poor by Western standards. The projected costs of even a partial rehabilitation of water pumping stations, meanwhile, could be well into the hundreds of millions of dollars. At roughly $1,400 per hectare, the estimated cost of implementing drip irrigation in more than 4 million hectares of irrigated land in Uzbekistan would exceed $5 billion. Uzbekistan's annual gross domestic product was $45 billion and Turkmenistan's was $24 billion in 2011, so the countries would probably need outside assistance.

While there are several international water system initiatives in various stages of approval, including proposed projects sponsored by the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, it remains unclear whether any of these projects will ever be implemented. Uzbekistan, which continues to receive Western criticism for child labor practices in its agriculture sector (among other issues), remains relatively closed to foreign investment and involvement. Some reports in the past year have indicated that China may be interested in investing in Uzbekistan, and Beijing's investment may well be more welcome than that of any Western partners.

Turkmenistan has a much smaller population to support than Uzbekistan, making improvements to its water usage system a somewhat less pressing concern. Still, the Turkmen government is likely to continue trying to appease the Mary clan in its main agricultural area to avoid prompting the kind of ethnic backlash that could jeopardize political stability.

Kazakhstan is in a slightly better position than the other two downriver countries. Because it is more open to outside assistance and has more money at its disposal, the country — in cooperation with the World Bank — has been able to launch a rehabilitation project for the Aral Sea. Under the first phase of the project, Kazakhstan completed the Kokaral dam in 2005, allowing a northern portion of the Aral Sea to be partially restored and small-scale fishing to resume. The second phase calls for the construction of another dam and the rehabilitation of other irrigation schemes along the Syr Darya.

Despite Kazakhstan's limited progress and the numerous proposed development projects of the region, comprehensive action to improve the regional irrigation situation appears to have stalled. While improvements to the efficiency of the system are possible, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, two of the three largest water users, appear unable or unwilling to pursue the kinds of measures that could mitigate a water crisis. Thus, as these countries compete for a limited and potentially shrinking resource, tensions are likely to rise and could eventually boil over into a military confrontation should the threats to their water supply become sufficiently dire.

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