Water tensions in central Asia

A regional crisis created mainly by disastrous Soviet policies will only be exacerbated by the challenges of climate change, a Kyrgyz water expert tells Isabel Hilton.

At first glance, China’s neighbour Kyrgyzstan, with more than 40,000 rivers and streams, appears to enjoy abundant water supplies. But Ysmail Dairov, executive director of the Regional Mountain Centre of Central Asia, says appearances are deceptive. Rainfall supplies only one-fifth of Kyrgyzstan’s water; the rest comes from the shrinking glaciers of the Tian Shan mountain range. Add to that the fact that the region is already highly water stressed, he says, and the outlines of an impending emergency are clear.

The region’s difficulties go back to the time when all five central Asian states (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan) were part of the USSR, and disastrous Soviet development policies destroyed the Aral Sea. From the 1940s onwards, Soviet planners had diverted the rivers that fed the Aral Sea primarily to irrigate Uzbekistan’s newly planted and thirsty cotton crops, considered by Moscow to be “white gold.”

Uzbekistan still produces high volumes of cotton, but the regional impact of the policy was devastating. Once the world’s fourth-largest salt water lake, the Aral Sea shrank from a total of 68,000 square kilometres in 1960, to 10% of that by 2007. It has now split in two and suffered a five-fold increase in salinity, which has killed off most of its flora and fauna. The fishing industry – which once employed 40,000 people – has collapsed, and the Aral Basin is now a devastated saline landscape, heavily polluted with the aftermath of Soviet weapons testing and chemical residues. Its toxic dust is carried on the central Asian winds; the loss of such a vast body of water has led to hotter, drier summers in the region.

An August 2009 NASA photo shows that the Aral Sea continues to shrink

“The principal water problems in our region are quite severe,” Dairov explained. “The central Asian states inherited the use of the water resources of the Aral Basin, which is an arid and semi-arid area, with severe water stress and low rainfall, especially limited in downstream countries.” Despite recent efforts to save the remnants, which have met with some success in the northern part, Dairov is pessimistic about its future. “The Aral Sea situation is worse than before,” he said. “We haven’t solved it. The cooperation is only rhetorical. I think it is going to die.”

The problems don’t stop there. The region suffers tensions over water use between the upstream countries of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, and their downstream neighbours Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. “The upstream countries build hydro-projects, but in the summer the downstream countries want water for irrigation while the upstream countries want to accumulate it for winter power generation,” said Dairov. “In Soviet times there was a system of compensation for the upstream countries with oil and gas from the downstream countries. Now, all five pursue their own interests.”

The region’s stress is likely to worsen, he believes, if Afghanistan’s internal political and military conflict diminishes. “Afghanistan is an upstream country for the region, but at present they are not making much use of their water resources because of their internal difficulties. If Afghanistan stabilises and begins to develop, they will want to use more.” More water use upstream will mean even less water available for the downstream countries.

Existing tensions, Dairov fears, will increase further with climate change, as a rapidly increasing regional population stakes rival claims to a steadily diminishing water supply. The area of irrigated land in the Aral Basin has nearly doubled since 1960 to 80 square kilometres. Over the same period, the population that has grown from 18 million to 45 million. Now scientists are making alarming forecasts about the region’s water future.

“Our scientists predict that by the end of the century we will have a 40% to 80% diminution of water supplies. In other words, we could be left with only 20% of what we now have,” said Dairov. “It’s a devastating prediction, and we have to begin now to adapt. All our rivers depend on snow and glaciers, so we need to base our regional cooperation policy on these dangerous trends. We need to take be more active in forestry conservation and reforestation. We have only 5% forest cover so we need to increase and protect our forests, to make new forest areas.”

A second strategy he advocates is to build more dams, which many see as a controversial policy. Dairov defends dam building as a means of regulating diminishing supplies and reducing potential conflicts of interest. “We can adjust supplies for both irrigation and hydropower,” he said. “The president and government of Kyrgyzstan want to build new hydropower stations for environmental reasons and for adaptation.” It would only work, he stresses, in combination with greatly improved conservation. “Both upstream and downstream countries should use more energy-saving and water-saving technologies for agriculture and industry. The strategic direction should be more rational and safer.”

The new centre that he heads, he says, is an example of Kyrgyzstan’s willingness to try to address the threat. “We plan to use modern approaches, in particular integrated water resource management involving all users of water and land at regional, national and international level.”

But none of the central Asian states, he believes, is currently equipped scientifically or technologically to deal with the crisis without assistance. “We are falling behind in glacier science. The Soviet Union studied the glaciers very actively but we lost that capacity after the fall of the USSR. We try to continue with our national science academies, but many of the scientists have gone abroad or to Moscow. What we are left with today is not strong,” he explained.

And given the failure of regional cooperation to save the Aral Sea, he acknowledges that there is a long way to go before cooperation on the impending water crisis could be effective.

“It is very hard to imagine how we will deal with an 80% loss of water resources,” he said. “The politicians do not understand what we are facing. There was a meeting of the presidents in Almaty in April – the five countries of the International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea. The Kyrgyz president raised the question of the long-term trends, but there has been little further action so far.”

Isabel Hilton is editor of chinadialogue

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