The Water Wars Are Coming to Central Asia

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In Turkmenistan, household faucets are running dry and locusts are devouring crops. In Kazakhstan, a state of emergency has been declared as the Caspian Sea shrinks to a puddle. In Uzbekistan, the end of an international slave-labor boycott has boosted demand for cotton, a thirsty crop that’s drained the Aral Sea. The Taliban are digging a canal to divert water from the Amu Darya, the river border of five parched Central Asian states. Afghanistan and Iran have traded deadly fire over cross-border water sharing. Some experts fear that the first shots of long-predicted “water wars” may already have been fired.

Almost 2 billion people rely on rivers that arise in the Tibetan Plateau and the Hindu Kush, among them the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. Long-term neglect, mismanagement, and overuse of water resources, coupled with a yearslong drought that’s baked the steppe hard, have rattled governments finally coming to terms with the reality of climate change. The presidents of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan will meet in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, in August for their annual get-together, with water high on the agenda. In a region where political power is often tied to control of resources, there’s one resource that is in increasingly high demand.

One of the few things water experts can agree on is that the threat is existential and the solution must be collective. Optimists point to 30-plus years of peace among the states that gained independence with the end of the Soviet Union as evidence that Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan can work together. Others, like Omair Ahmad, managing editor of the Third Pole, a platform for information on the Himalayan watershed, described the water worries as a “diplomatic minefield.” 

If only China could offer some leadership, he suggested, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) could offer the most fruitful forum. But China, the SCO’s driving force, has its own water-management issues, and doesn’t put a lot of stock in green projects when it comes to its big Belt and Road infrastructure initiative in Central Asia. “There is no domestic appetite [in China] for anything but a big win,” he said.

Central Asia’s water woes offer anything but a big win. For the Aral Sea, once the world’s biggest inland sea shared by Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, there’s no hope of revival, said Akram Umarov, an associate professor at the University of World Economy and Diplomacy in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent. “The Aral Sea is dead—we cannot save it,” he said.

Waters from the Syr Darya in the north and the Amu Darya in the south are drawn to irrigate agricultural production, mainly cotton, before reaching the Aral. No place in the region has introduced water-efficient technologies, there is limited coordination of management systems, and no systemic approach to overall water networks including smaller rivers and lakes has been implemented. “Water inefficiency is dramatic, and water waste is huge in the region,” Umarov said. “There are lots of talks but there is no implementation.”

None of this is entirely new, though the severity of the region’s water stress is. Central Asia’s history of water mismanagement “goes back to [Joseph] Stalin,” Ahmad said. “Soviet modernization was on steroids, and they didn’t take into account the traditional manner of water management,” instead opting for massive projects that showcased “the power of politics over nature.” After independence, the Central Asian states were largely taken over by kleptocrats who, like those in Russia, seized control of resources. “Those things have an impact because you’re not really looking at the land in terms of good water management, rather than for extracting goods for personal wealth and political power,” Ahmad said. 

The Soviet Union wasn’t the only country using development to demonstrate human dominance of nature: Dams were de rigueur in the mid-20th century rush to economic transformation in the United States and elsewhere. More recently, China’s damming of rivers flowing from the Tibetan Plateau in the decades since its development began in earnest has exacerbated tensions with downstream neighbors now dealing with the consequences of deforestation, silting, floods, salinization, and drought.

“It’s a problem that will continue to get bigger and bigger because of climate change, because of the mode of development and governance,” Ahmad said. 

Part of the problem is that countries in water-stressed areas of the world continue to place their economic bets in the worst places. Hyper-thirsty alfalfa is widely grown in the drought-wracked U.S. Southwest, often at the behest of Saudi investors. Egypt built its modern economy on water-intensive cotton production, making its fight with upstream Nigeria over the fate of the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam even more consequential. Uzbekistan, too, has for decades opted for cotton, specializing in the crop during the Soviet years, when it was harvested by citizens in what Human Rights Watch called “one of the world’s largest, most exploitable state-run forced labor programs.” The practice continued into independence and led to an 11-year boycott by more than 330 companies in the United States and elsewhere. The end of the boycott last year led to new investment meant to boost yields, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But growing more cotton almost certainly means more water stress.

There are transboundary agreements and cooperation agreements dating back decades that were largely moribund but are now being revived, Umarov said. These include the International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea and the Interstate Commission for Water Coordination Commission of Central Asia. There will probably be new ones.

Source : FP