Central Asia: Danger of war over water growing

world | Aug 6, 2011 | By Asia News

Bishkek – After talks in Bishkek, Kazakh and Kyrgyz officials failed to reach an agreement on Kazakhstan’s request for additional water supplies from upstream Kyrgyzstan. Meanwhile, the worst drought in decades threatens the livelihoods of farmers in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.

Kyrgyz Deputy Energy Minister Avtandil Kalmamatov said Kazakhstan asked for more water for wheat and cotton producers in southern Kazakhstan. Talks, he added, would resume very soon. If an agreement is reached, Kyrgyzstan will release water from its Toktogul Reservoir.

The problem goes back a long time. Central Asia is relatively dry and water is not evenly distributed. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have lots of it but are poor in energy and raw materials. For this reason, they want Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan to trade water for what they need. Downstream nations have balked at the idea, saying that water belongs to everyone and are opposed to Kyrgyz and Tajik plans for upstream hydroelectric power stations.

Earlier this month the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) released a report on the situation in the Amu Darya Basin. The report noted that temperatures are projected to rise by 2-3 degrees in the next 50 years. It found that glaciers in the high mountains of Central Asia are vanishing. All this puts the Amu Darya in danger. The longest river in Central Asia at 2,540 kilometres, it marks the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan before flowing through Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan until the Aral Sea.

Under Soviet rule, a network of water pumps and irrigation canals was built to boost the region's agriculture. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1992, the population of the region has more than doubled, as has the demand for water. More importantly, the agricultural sector still employs 67 per cent of the labour force in Tajikistan, 45 per cent in Uzbekistan, 48 per cent in Turkmenistan and 80 per cent in Afghanistan.

“Differences of opinion" regarding the river were affecting the nature of overall relations between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, Tajikistan's foreign minister, Hamrokhon Zarifi, said on 18 July.

At the centre of their disagreement lies Tajikistan's plan to complete the construction of Rogun, a Soviet-era hydropower dam, on the Vaksh River, one of the sources of the Amu Darya. Once it is completed, it would be the highest hydroelectric dam in the world.

Uzbekistan is concerned that it might lose control over its water. It has called on the international community to act, claiming that the dam would have a negative impact on the environment.

Conversely, Tajikistan said it has no other way of generating energy (which is already rationed in winter), accusing instead Uzbekistan of holding up Tajik exports on its border, including by trains.
At the same time, Uzbekistan has already cut its gas export to Tajikistan and stopped power supplies from Turkmenistan.

The according to the United Nations report, the river cannot meet all the demands put on it and that its volume could shrink.

An agreement is needed to prevent things from degenerating into confrontation.

Tajik Foreign Minister Zarifi recently said that the matter should be referred to the Commonwealth of Independent Nations, which includes former Soviet republics, for a solution. Yet, although Dushanbe wants a deal, it is still pursuing its own road.


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