Jan 31, 2014 | 17:05 GMT

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Tensions Over Water Resources in Central Asia

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Tensions Over Water Resources in Central Asia

The decline of Central Asia's Aral Sea, located on the Kazakh-Uzbek border, is a dramatic example of the consequences of water mismanagement. The two rivers that feed the lake, the Syr Darya and the Amu Darya, originate primarily in the neighboring countries of Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Afghanistan. The heavy use of the rivers' waters for crop irrigation reduced the flow of the rivers into the Aral Sea, reducing water levels starting in the 1960s and increasing salinity. By 1990, the lake separated into two halves as the water levels dropped. The lake's decline effectively eliminated a once vibrant fishing industry. With assistance from the World Bank, Kazakhstan began restoring the smaller northern portions of the lake in 2001. Other countries could take similar isolated actions, but historical tensions and unequal distribution of resources in the region make true trans-boundary water resource management highly unlikely.

The downstream nations — Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan — have greater access to non-water resources, like fossil fuels, and have larger economies than those upstream. However, the downstream countries remain vulnerable to the upstream nations of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan regarding guaranteed access to water resources. Moreover, rapidly growing populations will further strain Central Asia's limited water resources. The uncertain future of regional water resources will only increase tensions in the region as neighboring nations with differing priorities continue competing for the limited resource. The success of future rehabilitation projects for the Aral Sea depends on the level of regional cooperation; however, the inherent tensions in the region are not expected to dissipate in the near future.

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