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CENTRAL ASIA: Together They Lose

Christopher Pala

Dams such as this in Central Asia are not used co-operatively. Credit: Christopher Pala/IPS.

Dams such as this in Central Asia are not used co-operatively. Credit: Christopher Pala/IPS.

ALMATY, Kazakhstan, Nov 18 2011 (IPS) - Rarely have so many donor countries spent so much for so long to achieve so little. In fact, the scores of Western countries ranging from the Netherlands to the United States that have tried for 20 years to coax the Central Asian nations to use their water cooperatively and create a win-win situation for all have found that the Central Asians are cooperating less and less, not more and more.

Water-sharing problems among any neighbouring countries from the Danube to the Nile are among the most intractable, but what sets the Central Asians apart is that today’s waters managers know first-hand the advantages of cooperating – they practised it themselves only 20 years ago. “The centralised Soviet system made Central Asians use water for the mutual benefits of both sets of countries: the ones that have a lot of water but not much land, and the ones that have no water but a lot of land that needs irrigation,” said Iskandar Abdullaev during a conference in Almaty organised by the Germain aid agency Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ), his employer. “Now the independent countries are stuck in a lose-lose situation.”

Central Asia, far from any ocean, gets little rain. Much of it falls on the Pamir mountains, from which the region’s two great rivers travel due east, the Amu Darya just a few hundred kilometres south of the larger Syr Darya. Both end up in the Aral Sea, from which no river flows out. All but the northern part of the sea has dried up because most the water from the two rivers that compensated for evaporation is now used for irrigation before it reaches the Aral.

To support this irrigation, the Soviet authorities built a series of dams on the Syr Darya so that upstream Kyrgyzstan could release the water to maximum advantage for the irrigation-based agriculture of downstream Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. The dams were equipped with power-generating turbines that also furnished Kyrgyzstan with cheap electricity when the water was released downstream.

Thus for decades, part or all of the summer’s snowmelt water was held in these reservoirs until the following spring’s planting season. Uzbekistan used its abundant gas and coal to cover the winter heating needs of Kyrgyzstan.

But after independence in 1991, Uzbekistan ceased deliveries of heating materials so Kyrgyzstan started releasing the water from its dams in winter, when people use electric heaters and demand soars. Much of the winter water goes to waste in the Uzbek desert, though some is hoarded in small reservoirs. As a result, a quarter of Uzbekistan’s farmland can no longer be irrigated and is no longer productive.

Meanwhile, Tajikistan is working to complete a giant, 2-billion-dollar dam on a tributary of Uzbekistan’s other major source of water, the Amu Darya, which so far has seen little man-made regulation. The Roghun dam, in a steep gorge, would be the tallest in the world and could generate 3,600 megawatts of electricity, six times more than a typical coal-burning power station.

The dam, initially designed by Soviet engineers to regulate water for irrigation, is now seen primarily as a tool to produce electricity for export, which means the release of water would not be optimised for Uzbek agriculture.

After the project sparked strong protests from Uzbekistan, the Tajiks asked the World Bank for a low- interest loan to finance a series of feasibility studies supervised by the bank.

“We won’t make a decision until the studies are finished,” said Tajik water resources minister Rahmat Bobokalonov. “So far, it’s too early to tell what the studies will conclude,” added World Bank water specialist Daryl Fields.

Hydrologist Vadim Sokolov of the Interstate Commission of Water Coordination of Central Asia in Tashkent says that if the dam is built and used primarily for electricity, it will not only ruin much of the remaining Uzbek farmland, it will also damage wetlands at the former estuary of the Amu Darya on the dried-up southern part of the Aral Sea.

The Roghun dam is the latest of a series of costly policies by the Central Asian states based on the belief that cooperation is unlikely and that each country needs to build a system that doesn’t depend on its neighbours’ goodwill.

Sokolov says the go-alone policies have forced Uzbekistan to seek expensive ways of storing the water in winter and obliged all countries to build new roads to reach a small number of border crossings after the rest of the borders were closed. Meanwhile, he adds, Kyrgyzstan’s and Tajikistan’s already creaky energy grids have been put under great strain by surging winter demand for electric heating, increasing the frequency of blackouts.

“Even Kyrgyz farmers suffer,” Sokolov says. “In 2008, it was a dry year, they only got 60 percent of their irrigation water needs, even less than the Uzbeks, who got 70 percent.”

The situation is all the more galling because in 1998, following an initiative by the United States, the four countries signed an agreement under which they would return to the Soviet model: the Syr Darya downstream countries, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, would supply electricity, coal and gas to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in exchange for the others releasing the water in spring and summer.

But the downstream countries only held their part of the deal for three years and ever since, the upstream countries have emptied their reservoirs in winter to spin their turbines, despite multiple attempts to get the countries to cooperate again.

Meanwhile, climate change is darkening the outlook. Glaciers are melting, providing a temporary boost to be followed by a shortfall – it’s unclear how big – when they will be gone for good. What is more certain is that warmer temperatures will mean more evaporation, therefore less water available for irrigation.

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