Russia and Central Asian Water

Russia And Central Asian Water

by John C.K. Daly

An integral element of the new Eurasian "great game" between Russia and the United States is a tussle for control of the Caspian's hydrocarbon riches and those of former Soviet republics farther east. But Russia is making a diplomatic play on another key resource -- water.

Russian and foreign energy consortia remain largely focused on the region's rich oil and natural gas reserves. Within the "Stans" -- former Soviet republics Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan -- an added element in the matrix is water, used by Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan largely to generate hydroelectric power, while the downstream states of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan view it as a resource for supporting agriculture rather than an energy source.

In the 17 years since the Soviet Union collapsed, the Central Asian nations emerging from the debris have yet to resolve the issue of an equitable distribution of the arid region's most precious resource. The most significant amounts of oil and gas are found in the westerly "Stans" of Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan; the region's aquatic reserves are largely under the control of the most easterly (and poor) mountainous states, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, which between them account for more than 85 percent of the region's groundwater reserves, primarily in the form of alpine glacial runoff that feeds the region's two largest rivers, the Syr Darya and Amu Darya.

Earlier this week Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, during a state visit to Uzbekistan, weighed in on the issue, telling journalists: "The construction of hydropower stations in Central Asia should meet the interests of all neighboring countries and should correspond to international rights' norms of transboundary rivers' usage. It is impossible to act in isolation. It can cause tensions which can only be solved not by economic but by political means. ...

"Hydroelectric power stations in the Central Asian region must be built with consideration of the interests of all neighboring states," he said, adding, "If there is no common accord of all parties, Russia will refrain from participation in such projects."

Medvedev's comments delighted his hosts, who have argued that if Tajikistan proceeds with constructing its planned Rogun hydroelectric cascade, which would be Central Asia's largest, it would severely impact the water needs of downstream states. Uzbek President Islam Karimov stated: "I would like to especially speak on one issue. Uzbekistan counts on Russia's well thought-out and considered position on issues relating to the implementation of hydropower projects in the Central Asian region."

Sayfullo Safarov, deputy director of Tajikistan's Center for Strategic Studies, opined that Medvedev's statement "regarding the region's water question is most likely a diplomatic dodge of this problem," adding that while Moscow is interested in normal relations with all Central Asian nations, the water issue remains today the "most painful" unresolved issue in fostering the relations.

Building Rogun is beyond Dushanbe's capabilities; the government was forced to announce a tender for participation in the project, because the cost of the work was appraised at $5 billion to $6 billion.

Medvedev's statements caused Tajikistan to deliver a diplomatic protest, fearing that Moscow was favoring Tashkent's position over its own. There are, however, alternatives to gigantic Soviet-legacy projects like Rogun, first begun in 1976, such as smaller, more numerous hydroelectric facilities that would alleviate many of the downstream nations' concerns and have been advocated by Western specialists with such institutions as the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund and the Asian Development Bank.

The equitable division of these waters remains at the heart of the contentions, with the downstream agrarian states both seeking regular water discharges for irrigation while maintaining that water is not a resource for which they should be charged. In turn, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan maintain that if fiscal or energy assistance is not received to tide them over through the bitter winter months, they will release the water during the autumn and winter to generate electricity as they have no other power options, whatever the agrarian concerns of their downstream neighbors.

It is not as if the Stans have not attempted to grapple with the issue. In 1992 the five countries established the Interstate Coordinating Water Commission to formulate a regional solution to the problem, but despite more than 50 meetings during the last 16 years, little of note has been accomplished, leaving each country to pursue its own interests or bilateral relations.

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To me it does not seem feasible for Central Asia to now be pursuing hydoelectric projects (dams) in light of the persistant and pervasively severe drought that has been affecting water resources and agriculture in this area of the world for several years already:

Central Asia Drought

Also, with population movement in recent years due to these conditions there are more people living in landlocked areas with less arable land who depend on that land for food. This is also the area of the Syr Darya and Anu Darya Rivers which are fed by glaciers that are now receding due to climate change.

I believe in the future it will become harder for countries to come together to work out plans for hydroelectric power in regions such as this when food is scarce due to lack of water resources. This is why I am such a big proponent of solar energy. It would surely solve their water management problems in this region. At least in regards to having more to use for agricultural purposes. I also notice that in these articles when leaders of countries speak on this they rarely mention conservation, more efficient irrigation methods, and switching to different crops to be grown to save water. Cotton is a popular crop grown in this region, but it is also very water intensive.

With a humanitarian crisis already affecting millions in this area due to the depletion of the Aral Sea for agriculture years ago, I would hope people in this region would learn from the mistakes of the past.

From a strategic standpoint it also now makes perfect sense as to why the Russian president has now volunteered to "help" America in Afghanistan. It takes water to extract natural gas. Water surely will be and is fast becoming the new oil.