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Central Asia: Challenges of Fragile States for Regional Water Cooperation


Central Asia, consisting of the southern former Soviet Union provinces, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, is enriched in natural resources. Central Asia, with the population of 60 million people, covers an area of 4 million square kilometers. The population density of Central Asia is 15 people/km2. The topography of Central Asia is totally varied with high glaciated mountains, grassy steppes and extensive deserts. Around 20% of Central Asia is covered by mountains. More than 90% of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are mountainous areas. The two major river systems of the Central Asia, Amu Darya and Syr Darya Rivers were the main feeders of the Aral Sea discharging huge amount of freshwater into the Aral Sea from north and south respectively.

Aral Sea, Lake Balkhash and Issyk Kul Lake are the major water bodies located in Central Asia. During the Soviet era, Amu Darya and Syr Darya Rivers with its regulating structures were managed according to their border river basin. The Ministry of Land Reclamation and Water Resources of USSR was responsible to handle the issue of water in Central Asia. Hence, the role of each Central Asia republic-Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan- in decision making was limited to providing data for the Center in Moscow. According to basin management, dams and reservoirs were built in the upstream (Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan), while irrigated lands were developed in the downstream (Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan). The purpose behind construction of the water structure at the upstream was to increase irrigation in the downstream. According to this framework, water was released in summer to irrigate lands in the downstream. During 1950 and 1990, huge investment was made to build water infrastructures. In addition, during this period, irrigated area was expanded by 150% in the Amu Darya River Basin and 130% in the Syr Darya River Basin. The flow of the two rivers were diverted to canals to irrigate the cotton fields in the downstream. In the Russian Empire, the main focus was to cultivate cotton along the Aral Sea located between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. The economy of the region was based on cultivation of cotton along the Aral Sea. To cultivate cotton along the Aral Sea, many water structures were built along the major feeder of the Aral Sea, Amu Darya River. Diverting water of the Amu Darya River that would have discharged into the Aral Sea, led the Aral Sea to crisis. Prior to the construction of water structures along the Amu Darya River in 1960, around 60 billion cubic meters of water flowing into the Aral Sea. Whereas the amount of water declined to 1.5 billion cubic meters in 2000. Therefore, diverting water, cultivation of cotton along the Aral Sea as well are drastic climate change are the only reasons for disappearance of Aral Sea.

During the Soviet era, there was no dispute between Upstream and Downstream countries. This is because all the riparian countries were jointly benefitting the common pool resources, energy, food and water. During the Soviet era, upstream countries did not produce hydroelectricity which were needed in the winter. Instead they were releasing water in summer to irrigate the cotton lands in the downstream, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Since all republics were unified in one country under the Soviet Union, energy was provided to the upstream countries (Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan) by the Russia and downstream countries which had oil and gas reserves. After the disintegration of Soviet Union, the downstream countries did not provide free energy for the upstream countries. Hence, the upstream countries which did not have oil and gas reserves stated that water is their national commodity. Upon the disintegration of the Soviet Union, all the republics launched a new strategy of energy and food security. Any shift in water allocation by the upstream could lead to the crop failure in the downstream.

Right after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Kyrgyzstan privatized its state and collected farms. In 1990, there were 450 states and collective farms, whereas these numbers reached to 40,000 in 1996. Any increase in collective farms resulted in more water allocation. On the other hand, Tajikistan the second upstream country started the construction of Rogun Dam. The purpose of the dam was to provide electricity in winter for Tajikistan. Storing water in summer and releasing water in winter for the purpose of hydro-power generation brought severe damages to the downstream countries. First, the agriculture productivity in the downstream countries, which is highly relying on the release of water in the summer, failed. Second, due to release of water in winter, downstream countries are prone to flooding. Finally, due to the upstream water storage, less amount of water discharged into the South Aral Sea which is currently located in the Uzbekistan.

As the result of over-exploitation of natural resources in Central Asia, the region faced with many serious catastrophic consequences. The shrinkage of Aral Sea, soil degradation, deterioration of water quality, disposal of toxic waste due to mining and exploitation of natural gas and oil along the river in the downstream, over-abstraction of water by the upstream countries, extraction of hydro-carbon in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan along with the drastic changes led to devastating condition in Central Asia. Although many international agencies as well as donors have taken initiatives in mitigating water conflict within the Central Asia, the problem of water dispute is still dramatically increasing.

To reduce the water conflict between the upstream and downstream countries in the Central Asia, a more sophisticated cooperation that encompasses water-energy and agriculture nexus is needed. Further to that, it is highly recommended to engage Afghanistan in trans-boundary water cooperation and management with regards to Amu Darya River Basin. This is due to the fact that a large percent amount of water of the Amu Darya River flows into Afghanistan. According to Haleemzai and Sediqi, the greatest challenge toward regional water cooperation in the context of Amu Darya River Basin is political will. Downstream countries such as Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan- are unwilling to regional water cooperation. To sum up, for a rational dialogue over trans-boundary water management, it is important that all stakeholders and parties share equal position and equal right in decision making regarding water management.


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  5. Haleemzai, H. A., & Sediqi, A. (2018). Impacts of Water Development Plans on Regional Water Cooperation—A Case Study of Amu River Basin. Journal of Water Resource and Protection, 10(10), 1012–1030. doi: 10.4236/jwarp.2018.1010059
  6. Lioubimtseva, E., and G.m. Henebry. “Climate and Environmental Change in Arid Central Asia: Impacts, Vulnerability, and Adaptations.” Journal of Arid Environments, vol. 73, no. 11, 2009, pp. 963–977., doi:10.1016/j.jaridenv.2009.04.022.
  7. Lioubimtseva, Elena. “Impact of Climate Change on the Aral Sea and Its Basin.” The Aral Sea, 2013, pp. 405–427., doi:10.1007/978-3-642-02356-9_17.
  8. Wegerich, K. (2004). Coping with disintegration of a river-basin management system: multi-dimensional issues in Central Asia. Water Policy, 6(4), 335–344. doi: 10.2166/wp.2004.0022

The writer has M.Sc. in Water Policy and Management at Oregon State University, USA, IHE (Institute for Water Education), the Netherlands and United Nation Mandated University for Peace, Costa Rica

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