SEnECA Blog Post: Trans-boundary water cooperation in Central Asia: do European experiences help to solve the problem?

Inter­na­tional trans-boundary water resources are the most important type of natural resources. A rational and equitable use of water can provide prosperity and security to individual states and entire regions. Therefore, the effective use of trans-boundary waters is of particular relevance today. This is due to the fact that these resources have the capacity not only to promote regional cooper­ation and intensify the integration processes, but also may act as a source of potential conflicts.

At the end of 20th century, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the efficient use of trans­boundary water resources arose on the agenda of Central Asian states and shortly became one of the most pressing issues to be addressed in order to ensure a peaceful and progressive devel­opment of Central Asian nations.

There are 276 rivers in the world which cross several countries. Nine of them lie in Central Asia. These are: Amu-darya, Sir-darya, Zarafshan, Chu, Talas, Ili, Murgab, Tedjen and the Irtysh river. The Amu-darya and the Sir-darya have great strategic impor­tance because they provide the Aral Sea with water. These rivers also play an important role in the agriculture, industry, services, and city-building in Central Asian countries.

However, the adoption of polit­i­cally driven short-sighted decisions taken by the Soviet Union authority in the past under the quinquennial plans for the social­istic devel­opment with the aim to «catch up and overtake the West» and to reach out «worldwide triumph of communism» led to extensive inter­ven­tions into natural processes, wasteful use of water resources and dramat­i­cally altered the flow regime of the Amu-darya and Sir-darya rivers over the centuries. These factors have caused a greater environ­mental catastrophe related to the desic­cation of the Aral Sea. Water shortages, loss of culti­vated land, a sharp decrease in flora and fauna, climate change, as well as accel­erated melting of mountain glaciers in the Pamir and Tien Shan form a short list of conse­quences related to the environ­mental degra­dation of the Aral Sea. The socioe­co­nomic and ecological conse­quences of this tragedy, such as high-level droughts, unusually warm springs, increase in salinity and toxicity of herbi­cidal and pesticide-conta­m­i­nated water and an increased number of dust storms are not only felt in Central Asia itself, but also far beyond in other countries.

Despite these problems, Central Asian republics are continuing using water resources on the basis of purely national interests, often without consid­ering the interests of neigh­bouring countries located in the lower parts of the rivers’ basin, and the whole region. Upstream countries of the region (Kyrgyzstan and Tajik­istan) have high water consumption for energy purposes while downstream countries (Uzbek­istan and Turkmenistan) suffer from water shortages for agricul­tural use. This is especially true when consid­ering issues of food security, which are directly dependent on the avail­ability of irrigated land and suffi­cient water during the growing season. At the same time, there is an increasing number of projects on the construction of large hydraulic struc­tures (mega dams and hydro­electric power stations) on rivers in the upper part of the basin. The imple­men­tation of such projects can increase water shortages and poten­tially lead to catastrophic human-made environ­mental and social impacts, which ultimately threaten sustainable devel­opment in the region.

In fact, trans­boundary water conflicts are one of the most serious problems in the world. Over the last twenty years, several devel­oping countries have already faced trans-boundary water problems. However, these problems are still far from being resolved. Water management and water conflict resolution is placed high on the political agenda of all countries and is an ongoing issue for political debates. Partic­u­larly, compe­tition over fresh­water resources is consis­tently growing in Central Asia.

Inter­na­tional law offers a wide range of mecha­nisms and norms to regulate the utilization and management of water in order to avoid and settle disputes and to transform compe­tition into cooper­ative devel­opment paths. In Europe, where one finds a large number of trans-boundary rivers, successful mecha­nisms for effective trans-boundary water resource management were formed through peaceful means. This happened through strong commitment to inter­na­tional law and through sensi­tivity towards the interests of countries in river basins, which certainly deserve special attention. Inves­ti­gating the case of Danube, the Rhine and other cases and imple­menting the best European experi­ences would play a crucial role in resolving trans­boundary water problems in Central Asia. Hence, joint research between European and Central Asian scholars on the issue is needed.

SEnECA blog contri­bution by Jean Monnet Chairman Prof. Khaydarali Yunusov, University of World Economy and Diplomacy in Tashkent.