An early August meeting of Central Asian heads of state in Turkmenistan addressed issues such as the COVID-19 pandemic and regional consequences of renewed Taliban control of Afghanistan. Additionally, there was one interesting proposal that is quite relevant to the challenges that the region faces today: Kazakhstani President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev proposed the creation of a vice ministerial-level working group and a regional consortium with the goal of promoting regional cooperation to protect precious water resources.
Central Asia’s enduring water issues
Central Asia has a complicated relationship with water – a legacy of the Soviet Union, which constructed dams and altered the flow of rivers to develop massive irrigation projects; for example, to grow cotton fields, a critical crop in Uzbekistan. The end result has been widespread desertification and a catastrophic hit to the waters of the Aral Sea. Three decades after gaining independence from the Soviet Union, water continues to heavily influence regional geopolitics among the five Central Asian nations. The famous “water wars” between upstream (Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan) and downstream (Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan) nations have been well analyzed in the past couple of decades (for example, see a 2012 report from the International Crisis Group), so we will not provide an in-depth historical analysis of the situation.
Nevertheless, it is worth noting that water has truly, and unfortunately, become a catalyst for conflict. This was clearly demonstrated this past April/May, when a clash occurred between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan over a water intake station on the Kyrgyz-Tajik border near Kok-Tash in Batken province. Dozens were killed over this precious commodity. The situation will not improve anytime soon due to the effects of climate change, which is worsening summers and causing severe droughts; and the lack of a unified, common Central Asia water policy.
What did Tokayev propose in Turkmenistan?
This is where Kazakhstan comes in. The country has worked hard in recent years to protect its environment, including salvaging what is left of the Aral Sea, which is shared between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. The Kazakhstani government is also interested in protecting its ecosystem to develop eco-tourism. (I discussed these issues in a May 2021 report titled “The United States, Kazakhstan, and Environmental Cooperation,” published by George Washington University’s Central Asia Program). Looking forward, the country plans to rely on technology and “digitize 119 waterways [totaling] about 3,000 km;” in order to “save up to two billion cubic meters of water,” President Tokayev said during his speech. In other words, the proposals that the Kazakhstani leader made do not occur a vacuum, they are an expansion of water policies that Nur-Sultan is also carrying out domestically.
Specifically, during the 6 August summit, President Tokayev proposed the creation of a special working group of Central Asian vice ministers to discuss water issues. “This group can develop mutually beneficial solutions, taking into account the needs of all sectors of the economy,” the head of state explained. Similarly, he suggested the creating of an International Water and Energy Consortium in Central Asia. This proposed consortium would “coordinate the interests of all countries in the region in the field[s] of hydropower, irrigation and ecology.”
Moreover, the head of state suggested the improvement of “the organizational structure and legal framework” of the International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea (IFAS). The Fund has a very diverse mission. According to its website, the Fund’s main objective “is to finance and credit joint practical measures, programs and projects for saving the Aral Sea, ecological rehabilitation of the Aral Sea surroundings and Aral Sea Basin as a whole, taking into account the interests of all states in the region.” In a geopolitically complex area like Central Asia, this is no easy task.
Finally, President Tokayev suggested the revitalization of the agreement on the use of water and energy resources of the Syrdarya River, adopted in 1998. This document “focuses on the use of water and energy resources of the Naryn River below Toktogul Reservoir, and was… adopted by the governments of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. An amendment to include Tajikistan was adopted on 19 June 1998,” explains a 2013 essay on the Isfara River (which crosses three Central Asian states).
Can Central Asia cooperate on scarce water resources?
It is an open question if the five Central Asian governments can finally and successfully cooperate in water conservation projects. All five nations have other pressing priorities, like the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan, its effects on regional security, and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. With that said, the effects of climate change can no longer be ignored and it is commendable that President Tokayev has put forth initiatives to deal with water issues in the region, a concern that will only worsen in the coming years and decades if innovative and drastic solutions are not implemented. Sadly, recent clashes between security forces and civilians demonstrate that strong cooperation remains distant.
Moreover, sharing water resources among the five states may have extra-regional consequences. One example is widespread concern that Kazakhstan’s Lake Balkhash may become the next Aral Sea, as the Ili River, a river which flows from China into the lake, is being diverted to help irrigation projects in Chinese territory. If five Central Asian states can figure out how to effectively share water, so can Nur-Sultan and Beijing.
Water conservation is a sensitive and complex issue in Central Asia, and the situation will only become more problematic due to the devastating effects of climate change. Hence, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that we may see new clashes between the upstream and downstream countries in the near future, particularly if droughts become more persistent and destructive. Cooperation is the key to achieve non-violent solutions.
Therefore, the proposals presented by President Tokayev at the August summit of Central Asian heads of state become all the more important and relevant as they are innovative policy suggestions that could achieve the desired results. “Water should not divide Central Asian countries, but unite them,” said the Kazakhstani head of state. While this sounds like a typical cliché, it is also true. Central Asian governments should not fight over who controls water, but jointly figure out how to effectively share and distribute this liquid commodity to fulfill the needs of their citizens.