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Afghanistan Solutions Heighten Central Asian Crisis

Timothy Spence

TASHKENT, Jan 9 2011 (IPS) - International efforts to replace poppy fields with food crops and improve living standards in impoverished northern Afghanistan seem undeniable progress in the conflict-ridden country. But some experts worry that these efforts will have unintended negative consequences for the nation’s neighbours, where water and energy resources are sparse and tensions run high.

For years, donors to Afghanistan have sought to boost agricultural production in the relatively peaceful north of the country. Many hope to tap Tajikistan’s vast hydro-electricity potential to spur economic development in the region.

But more crop production in Afghanistan and power generation in Tajikistan, where borders straddle one of Central Asia’s most important rivers, the Amu Darya, could increase the strain on downstream water supplies that are already the cause of anxiety in the region, particularly between Uzbekistan and its neighbouring nations.

“Everyone wants to see an end to the conflict in Afghanistan, and one way to achieve that is to improve the economy,” said Struan Stevenson, a Scottish member of the European Parliament who has worked as an environmental advisor in the region.

But by putting new stresses on the Amu Darya, he said, “you could create a whole number of mini-Afghanistans downstream, with conflict breaking out all over the place.”

The Amu Darya and the northern Syr Darya, both of which flow to the shrinking Aral Sea, are vital to a sea basin population of more than 42 million.

The rivers and a network of tributaries provide electricity for Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan and irrigation for the arid downstream nations Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, which, in addition to being rich in hydrocarbons, are agricultural heavyweights.

Uzbekistan, one of the world’s largest cotton exporters, has been locked in years-long disputes with Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan over ambitions to build new dams and reservoirs as well as massive hydro-power stations that were abandoned when the Soviet Union disintegrated.

Leaders in upstream Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan say their ambitious dam- building plans are essential for development of these fragile nations endowed with glaciers and water supplies.

But both Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan have strong reservations about these plans, fearing the impact on their water supplies and by extension the Aral Sea.

Recurring droughts, food shortages, ethnic unrest, and sour political relations do little to ease stress in the region. Relations are brittle, skirmishes between border guards are common, and Tajik authorities have accused their Uzbek counterparts of playing politics with humanitarian relief by blocking aid trains heading to Afghanistan.

Water and energy resources contribute to the friction. Last year, a regional body tasked with promoting water cooperation failed to reach agreement on water sharing during the growing season.

Two years ago, President Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan announced he would unplug his country from the Central Asian electricity grid, severing one of the last remaining links from the Soviet era and an important means of sharing power. Kazakhstan also pulled out of the grid.

During a trip to Central Asia last April, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged Central Asian leaders to cooperate on water sharing in order to reduce regional tensions. Still, fears of escalating conflict remain.

Erica Marat, a Washington-based specialist on Central Asian militaries, says Uzbekistan has drafted plans for seizing dams in neighbouring countries, while Kyrgyz and Tajik commanders have worked out scenarios for defending their hydro-power operations from Uzbekistan.

“Whether this scenario is a possibility is another question, but there is a threat perception in the Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan establishment,” Marat told IPS.

Marton Krasznai, a Central Asian regional adviser for the U.N. Economic Commission for Europe, warned in a recent speech on Afghan reconstruction that Central Asia’s water supplies “are under stress already. Economic development and demographic growth are likely to further increase demand for water.”

“While Central Asian countries have so far managed to resolve their disputes over water in a peaceful way, warning signs of tensions are there,” Krasznai said.

“This shows an unusual level of political tension among Central Asian countries.”

Today’s problems stem from the Soviet era. The 2,400-kilometre Amu Darya and 2,300-kilometer Syr Darya, along with their tributaries, were dammed or engineered to provide electricity to the underdeveloped region and to turn arid Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan into wheat and cotton producers.

The Soviet collapse changed the political dynamics but not the demand. Efforts to create cooperative institutions on water sharing began in the early 1990s, but the Interstate Commission for Water Coordination and the International Fund for the Aral Sea have little power and are broadly viewed as ineffective. Today, the draining of the two main rivers and steady destruction of the Aral Sea continues.

Under international pressure, Tajikistan has agreed to halt work on the massive Rogun dam on the Vakhsh River pending the results of a World Bank- led impact study, due within a year.

Still, Rogun is likely to proceed regardless of the study and despite Uzbek concerns. Tajik authorities say the project begun by Soviet engineers in the 1970s is essential to improving the domestic electricity supply – shortages are endemic in the country of 6.9 million people – and providing surplus electricity to sell to needy Afghanistan.

Rogun would have the capacity to produce 3,600 megawatts of electricity – nearly one-quarter of the nation’s current annual output.

Stevenson, who also served as an environmental adviser to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in 2010, when Kazakhstan held the rotating chairmanship, sees Rogun as a prime example of the need for regional engagement.

“It seems to me that it is a win-win project and it will allow properly managed water supplies to continue to flow downstream,” he said.

“What we have to ensure is that the water, when it arrives in downstream nations like Uzbekistan, is properly managed there as well.”

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