Oleg Sidorov, Ph.D. (Political Science), Director, Mirotvorchestvo Public Organization (Almaty, Kazakhstan)

The territory of Central Asia (Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan) covers an area of 3,882,000 sq. km and boasts a population of more than 53 million people, whereby water shortages have been a centuries-long bane for the region. Farming and cattle breeding have always been a life source here, and water is the main limiting factor. After gaining their independence, the Central Asian republics directed their efforts at raising the economy, establishing the market, and building democracy, but they ignored one of the most important problemsdistributing water resources, which subsequently became a bone of contention in the interstate relations of these newly independent countries.

Transborder Rivers

Several rivers in Central Asia are of interstate significance: the Amu Darya and Syr Darya (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan), the Talas and Chu (Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan), the Ili (Kazakhstan and China), the Tarim (Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and China), the Irtysh (China, Russia, and Kazakhstan), and the Tobol, Ural, and Ishim (Russia and Kazakhstan). The Caspian Sea also plays a very important role, whereby the countries contiguous to it have recently become involved in disputes about the use of its natural resources and the delimitation of its borders.

Many republics of the region have still been unable to reach a consensus on regulating use of the water supplies in the transborder rivers, which has led to an increase in the size of salinated areas. For example, the percentage of salinized irrigation land has reached 50% in Uzbekistan, and 37% in Turkmenistan; Kazakhstan has 179.9 million hectares of waste and devastated land (66% of the countrys territory), whereas this index reaches up to 80% in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.1 And if the current rates of salinization continue for a few more decades, most of the agricultural land in the river basins will be unsuitable for irrigable farming.2

Use of the twenty-three transborder rivers that run through Kazakhstan and China also constitutes an urgent problem. At present, this issue forms the crux of their bilateral relations in the joint use of water resources, and these countries have been discussing the problem of increasing the water intake from the Ili and Irtysh transborder rivers on Chinese territory for more than a year now. This poses an urgent problem for Astana, since the extensive use of hydroresources from the Irtysh and Ili in China has negative socioeconomic and environmental consequences for Kazakhstan. In particular, the Ili River supplies Balkhash Lake with 70% of its water. And this lake plays an important role in the republics economy, since water from it is used to support the enterprises of the metallurgical and energy industry, as well as to meet the needs of the population of the Balkhash Region.

Projects to increase the water intake of transborder rivers and/or divert them entail immense risks since they are fraught with irreversible environmental, demographic, socioeconomic, and political consequences for the regions states.

The Demographic Situation

It should be noted that Central Asia is characterized by a constant growth in population, which is significantly higher than the average world indices. And whereas at the beginning of the 20th century, when approximately 6 million people lived here and there was almost 0.6 hectares of arable land per capita, today (with a population of over 40 million people), there is less than 0.20 hectares per capita, and in Uzbekistan, less than 0.17 hectares.3 What is more, rash acts by the power structures of the regions republics have led to intensified desertification of their territory, as well as to a constant rise in the percentage of salinized irrigable land.

Of course, the growth in population is also creating an increase in the demand for water. And whereas Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan generally have enough water, the other republics experience shortages. For example, in terms of water supply per capita, Kazakhstan is at the bottom of the list among the CIS countries. The countrys surface water supplies amount to an average of 100.5 cubic km per year. Only 56 cubic km of this amount forms on its territory, the rest of the water comes from neighboring states (China, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Russia).4

The country essentially no longer has any water supplies that can be called clean. What is more, as we have already noted, the Irtysh, Ural, Syr Darya and Ili rivers are transborder, so the increased demand for their water by neighboring states is creating crises in certain parts of Kazakhstan. For example, the annual intake of surface and subterranean water in the countries of Central Asia fluctuates from 20% of the water supply (Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan) to 80-90% (Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan). And a further shortage in water resources can be predicted (taking into account the population growth): in the next ten years, demand could rise by another 20%.

Reservoirs and Their Problems

In addition to the rivers in Central Asia, there are also several reservoirs, the Toktogul with several hydroelectric power stations located downstream in Kyrgyzstan, the Kairakkum in Tajikistan, and the Shardarin in Kazakhstan. But the main water artery in the region is the Syr Darya River, which passes through Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, again Uzbekistan, and below the Kairakkum Reservoir, travels on to Kazakhstan, where it runs into the Shardarin Reservoir. As of the end of August 1999, there was 2.4 billion cubic meters of water in this reservoir, whereas by the end of that year, its volume had diminished to 1.1 billion cubic meters, and to a mere 0.6 billion cubic meters by the end of 2000. In May 2000, the total consumption of water from this treasure trove was lower than the 1999 index by 8%, in June by 34%, in July by 22%, and in August by 59%.5

The Dostyk Canal also plays an important role in the regions irrigation system, the headwork of which is located in Uzbekistan. This is why the south of Kazakhstan is dependent on the political games of the Uzbek authorities and states located further up the Syr Darya. During Soviet times, a department was created for regulating water supply to the Central Asian republics. After the Soviet Union collapsed, during the parade of sovereign states, this organization became known as the Syr Darya Interstate Enterprise, which inherited all the facilities on the river of the same name that once belonged to Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. This structure essentially gained monopoly rights to distributing water resources among the Central Asian republics. But there is one important detail that plays a decisive role in this question. Syr Daryas head office is in Tashkent, which allows Uzbekistan to use this organization as a lever of pressure in its relations with neighboring republics.

The most preferable alternative for overcoming Kazakhstans dependence on Uzbekistan with respect to water use is the project that envisages building the Koksarai Reservoir with a capacity of 3 billion cubic meters and a water conduit in the Maktaaral Region for connecting the Shardarin Reservoir to the Dostyk Canal. According to specialists, this project will run to $160 million.

We should also mention the agreement regulating the use of the hydroelectric resources of the Amu Darya River Basin, which was signed within the framework of the Central Asian Economic Community. This document was to set forth the operating conditions for the reservoir and the volumes of electricity to be supplied, but, unfortunately, all the decisions made on these issues got no further than the drawing board.

If we take a closer look at the functions of the reservoirs in Central Asia, we can draw some automatic conclusions. First, accumulating water resources for their further use during the irrigation period; second, creating water supplies for hydroelectric power stations; and third, using them as a lever of pressure on neighboring countries. For example, for the first time during its years of independence Bishkek responded to Uzbekistan cutting off its gas supplies with similar measures, the essence of which boiled down to if Tashkent wanted water during the irrigation period, it must fulfill its obligations to deliver blue fuel to Kyrgyzstan. In addition, due to the increased water discharge from the reservoirs of the Naryn Hydroelectric Power Plant cascade, there was fear of an environmental disaster in the Ferghana Valley of Uzbekistan, since the uncontrolled discharge from the Toktogul Reservoir into the Naryn River was causing the water volume to fluctuate drastically from 450 to 700 cubic meters a second. And this is leading to erosion and damage of the dams in the Uchkorgon, Naryn, and Uichin districts of the Namangan Region of Uzbekistan. In so doing, it must be kept in mind that further discharge in such large amounts could cause destruction of the dams and flooding of the nearby population settlements and farmland in this country.

This example clearly shows how the ambitions of the Central Asian leaders have caused an energy crisis in the south of Kazakhstan and created the threat of an environmental disaster in the Uzbek part of the Ferghana Valley. In other words, Kyrgyzstans decision to increase its electricity manufacture could have unpredictable consequences for the economy and ecology not only of Uzbekistan, but also of the entire region. In so doing, we should not ignore an extremely important feature of Kyrgyzstanits abundance of water. One of the most magnificent water arteries of Central Asia, the Syr Darya, forms on its territory, which supplies water to countries located downstream.

This standoff between Tashkent and Bishkek will not be resolved in the near future. And every year there will be conflicts, since Kyrgyzstan could step up the winter discharge of water and then shift to more restrictive conditions in the summer, which would be ruinous for Uzbekistans cotton plantations. Taking into account that the Uzbek part of the Ferghana Valley has the highest population density in the world, a social explosion is extremely likely, which will be detrimental to the entire region. In so doing, it should be taken into account that if this trend keeps up, drinking water supplies will abruptly diminish and (as a result) the epidemiological situation in Uzbekistans major cities, Namangan, Andizhan, Ferghana, and Kokand, will deteriorate. In this respect, the question of regulating water discharge is not just of domestic political significance. Many leaders have already begun to understand that not only Central Asias international reputation is suffering from these conflicts, but its security as well.


There are several hundred lakes in the region. Like its other water resources, they are distributed very unevenly, with most of the hydroresources located in the mountains. The largest is Sarykamysh Lake with a volume of approximately 100 cubic kilometers of water, followed by Aidar-Arnasai with more than 20 cubic km of water, Solenoe, Sudochye, and others. They are all fed from precipitation and river runoff, which plays both a positive and negative role. In the event of excessive infusion, the lakes could overflow, which is fraught with severe consequences for the land in the valleys. In this respect, Sarez Lake in Tajikistan is worth particular mention, which is located at an altitude of approximately 3,000 m. If its dam breaks, the entire volume of water will bear down on population settlements located lower than 3,000 m. And the consequences of this breach will be extremely ruinous both for the population and the farmland. This scenario of development cannot be dismissed, since seismic activity increases the likelihood of a dam break, and Central Asia is known to be seismically active.

Let us name several of the main reasons that could lead to irreversible consequences. First, seismic activity; second, the large amounts of precipitation; third, the governments failure to take measures to reinforce the Usoisk Dam will arouse (and is already arousing) the populations discontent. Finally, the most important and dangerous reasonterrorists, who could blow up the dam of Sarez Lake, thus causing extensive flooding along the Bartanga, Amu Darya, and Panj rivers to the shores of the Aral Sea. In so doing, 69,000 sq. km of Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Afghanistan, on which some 5 million people live, would be under water.6

The threat of possible flooding of population settlements and farmland should not only put the Central Asian republics on the alert, but also activate their joint efforts to resolve such problems.

Water Quality

The urban population is supplied with 62-90% of the water they need for economic and drinking purposes, and the rural population with up to 76%, which is clearly insufficient under the regions well-known climatic conditions. What is more, the situation in the villages is not getting any better.

But in face of this water shortage, the Central Asian republics are not only failing to use their resources rationally, they are even helping to pollute the waterways. A trend is currently noted in Central Asia toward deterioration in the quality of fresh water, which along with the sorry state of the water supply systems will aggravate the epidemiological situation in the region. And this is no fabrication, since in Kazakhstan alone, approximately four million people (27.5% of the countrys residents) do not have running water, and 27% of the rural population does not have access to safe drinking water. In so doing, 16.5% use water from open waterways for drinking.7 The situation in Tajikistan is even worseapproximately 40% of its population gets its water from open sources.8 When this water is used for drinking, there is a high risk of becoming infected with all kinds of diseases, which could escalate into an epidemic with all the ensuing consequences. Taken in conjunction with the high population density and its active migration, this is fraught with danger not only for the republic where the disease is generated, but also for all the neighboring states.

Interstate Relations Regarding the Use of Hydroresources

After the region acquired its sovereignty and continued to delimit the state borders, many natural resources ended up on different sides of the border, as a result of which the former regulations for the use of hydroresources have become hopelessly outdated.

We have already noted that water in Central Asia is one of the most important strategic resources. But it is still free. This gives rise to problems of interstate relations, which are having an impact not only on the political, but also on the socioeconomic development of these countries. In so doing, all the problems are extremely diverse and could cause a rise in tension both within the republics, and at a regional level.

Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have the largest water supplies, on the territory of which 50% and 30% of the runoff from the Aral Sea basin forms, respectively.9 But since questions regarding payment for the storage and pumping of water during the irrigation period from reservoirs located on their territory have not been resolved, even these two countries are encountering many problems.

The main issue for them is the threat to economic security, since insufficient funds for maintaining the regular operation of hydrotechnical facilities could lead to irreversible consequences if a large volume of water gushes out into the lowlands of the Ferghana Valley. The potential threat will not only affect its population, but will also be of significant detriment to the environment in the region.

The second problem is caused by the current relations among the regions republics, which have been waging a constant battle for domination and independence in the political and economic sphere since the Soviet Union collapsed. In this way, the use of hydroresources is increasingly acquiring not only an economic, but also a political hue. All the Central Asian countries understand that the state that controls the distribution of hydroresources in the region will be able not only to defend itself in relations with its neighbors, but also impose its rules in the regional political game.

The third problem relates to requalifying hydroresources from a natural component to a commodity. A working group of experts from all the Central Asian republics must be formed to draw up laws and normative-legal acts regarding the conditions and regulations for using water resources. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are interested in this. They propose upholding Principle No. 4 set forth in the 1992 Dublin Statement on Water and Sustainable Development: Water has an economic value in all its competing uses and should be recognized as an economic good. But Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan refuse to recognize water as a commodity, referring to the Agreement on the Joint Use of Water Resources signed by representatives from the Central Asian republics on 18 February, 1992 in Almaty. This Agreement ignores questions regarding compensation deliveries for regulating river runoff by means of reservoirs located in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. By the way, at present there are no international normative and legal acts that regulate interstate water distribution.

The fourth problem is defining the position of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan with respect to the use of the hydroresources on their territory. There are two regimes for using these resources: irrigation and energy. At present, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are operating in the artificial irrigation regime, that is, water is largely going to meet the needs of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan that arise at the beginning of the irrigation period, as a result of which Bishkek and Dushanbe are deprived of the possibility of accumulating water for manufacturing electricity, which, of course, does not meet their national interests. If Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan operate their hydroelectric plants in the winter, they will have much more electricity. However, during the summer, at the beginning of the irrigation period, it is highly probable that Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan will suffer severe droughts, which will have an impact on the harvest yield. And again the likelihood of an interstate conflict arises.

A no less important problem is related to the demographic situation in the Ferghana Valley. The increase in its population (combined with the shortage of water and limited amount of farmland) could play a key role in the appearance and development of interstate disputes that could escalate into latent conflicts evoked by territorial claims. We should note that the latent phase of a conflict, according to the above-mentioned parameters, could escalate within a short time into an open standoff capable of drawing the entire region into its orbit.

Another problem is directly related to the previous, since in light of the difficult demographic situation conflicts will begin not only between states, but also within them, which will allow the political opposition to more actively recruit new supporters from among ordinary citizens. A social explosion in the republics, underpinned by political demands, will draw the region into a prolonged conflict, since it will cause a chain reaction among its population, primarily the residents of the Ferghana Valley.

Particular attention should be paid to terrorist organizations and extremist groups. Islamic extremism combined with the water question is capable of sending the whole of Central Asia sky high. Since the leaders of its republics are only interested in the profit to be gained from the use of the reservoirs and there are no effective security measures, terrorists could use the reservoirs as an instrument for carrying out their threats. Although few of the heads of the Central Asian states are currently worried about the possibility of such a development in events, the potential for terrorist acts is high. And if the republics are sure that such onslaughts are only possible in populous cities, and not near reservoirs, they are sadly mistaken.

The Struggle for Hydroresources to Gain Domination

All the problems mentioned above will not only become urgent in the future, they are already playing a significant role in the relations among the Central Asian countries. For example, at the beginning of the irrigation period every year the relations between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan become aggravated, and the bone of contention between them is the cascade of the Naryn Hydroelectric Power Plant. At times it has gone as far as Uzbekistan carrying out exercises in the region of the Toktogul Hydroelectric Power Plant (near the Uzbek-Kyrgyz border) to seize this well guarded facility with the use of armored vehicles and military aviation. And the Bishkek authorities have taken advantage of these exercises to organize campaigns in the mass media supposedly aimed at informing the population of Kyrgyzstan, but primarily warning Tashkent that if the dam of the Toktogul Hydroelectric Power Plant is blown up as the result of a terrorist act, not only will Uzbekistan be unable to use the squandered water during the irrigation period, but it will even flood the Zeravshan and Ferghana valleys.

As for the disagreements between Astana and Tashkent, they are related to the question of equal use of the Naryn-Syr Darya cascade of reservoirs, as a result of which Uzbekistan systematically cuts off gas and electricity supplies to the southern regions of Kazakhstan. In response to this, Astana once cut Tashkent off from its international telephone network.

Tajikistan also has the opportunity to raise its influence in Central Asia, which for understandable reasons will not please its neighbors. For example, it could take control of a significant portion of the hydroresources of the Amu Darya and after completion of the Rogun Hydroelectric Power Plant this control will reach 100%. It should be noted that in this situation, Dushanbe could put pressure on the adoption of decisions by Tashkent and Ashghabad, since the cotton sowing part of Uzbekistan and the south of Turkmenistan will be directly dependent on Tajikistan.

Ashghabad is planning to create its own reservoir in Karakum, the main supply source for which will be the Amu Darya, and draw supplies from the Ob River. The man-made Karakum Lake is to be 2,000 sq. km in area. It will take 15-20 years to implement this project at a cost of between four and five billion USD. But we can only guess at the amount of water neighboring countries will get after the reservoir is filled with the wellspring of life.

The republics of the region should understand that water resources will have an increasing effect on its development with each passing year. But as things stand at the moment it is clear that they are not inclined to compromise and are taking a different routeaggravating interstate relations in order to assume a dominating position in Central Asia.


The ongoing debacle regarding the use of hydroresources is seriously hindering settlement of the numerous regional, domestic, and local conflicts, thus becoming a permanent sore point in the interrelations among all five countries. It is particularly worth mentioning that these problems are creating an immense obstacle to the economic development of these states.

Water is increasingly turning into a strategic weapon in disputes among the republics. And the breakdown in forces in the regions and prospects for its 58 million residents will depend on how they decide to resolve these problems.

The difficult demographic situation will inevitably cause an increase in the populations demand for water, and according to forecasts, this demand will increase by 40% in the next 20 years. And this will become a determining factor in the domestic policy of the Central Asian republics, as well as in interstate relations.

The use of hydroresources combined with geopolitics is activating separatist tendencies. These three components with respect to the region are interrelated and interdependent. And the problem of hydroresources will be stipulated by the geopolitical interests of these states and be accompanied by separatism at the regional level.

It is becoming obvious that large amounts of money are needed to carry out measures to support and develop hydropower, as well as irrigation systems. But, taking into account the socioeconomic situation in the countries of the region, it is unlikely they can resolve the problems of hydroresources by themselves. All these republics should step up efforts to attract investments from developed countries.

We will note again that water was, is, and will be a vital geo-economic and strategic resource for the development of the regions states. The state that has control over the hydroresources will have the opportunity not only to support its own economy, but also modernize it. This will eliminate one of the leading factors influencing the increase in the populations dissatisfaction with its social status and the government, thus making it possible to get a real grip on the situation in the country.

1 State of the Environment in the Central Asian Countries, Regional working group YUNEP-GRIDA, 1999.
2 Project of the Global Environmental Foundation Managing Water Resources and the Environment in the Basin of the Aral Sea, Global Environmental Foundation, 2002.
3 See: Iu. Iegorov, Tsentralnoi Azii ne oboitis bez rek Sibiri? Vozmozhno, davno otvergnutiy proekt budet vozrozhden, Nezavisimaia gazeta, 22 March, 2001.
4 See: K. Duskaev, Problemy vodoobespecheniia v Kazakhstane, Energiia Kazakhstana, No. 3, 2000.
5 See: N. Kenzheev, Bez vody nauchilis vyrashchivat khlopok v Iuzhno-Kazakhstanskoi oblasti, Respublika, 2 November, 2000.
6 Global Environmental Foundation project Managing Water Resources and the Environment in the Basin of the Aral Sea.
7 State Program of the Republic of Kazakhstan Drinking Water for 2001-2030, Ministry of Environmental Protection, Republic of Kazakhstan, 2001.
8 Report on the State of the Environment in the Republic of Tajikistan 2000, Dushanbe, 2001.
9 Regional consultation seminar of ABR and MKVK Cooperation in the Joint Use of Water Resources in Central Asia: Past Experience and Future Problems, Almaty, 2002.

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