Central Asia’s dam debacle

Grand engineering schemes have failed to address the political problems of water management. As climate change dries up the rivers, regional tensions will escalate, warns Eelke Kraak.

The Toktogul Dam in Kyrgyzstan is an imposing structure. The dam guards the largest and only multi-annual water reservoir in central Asia. The cascade of five hydroelectric stations downstream produces 90% of Kyrgyzstan’s power. Cotton fields thousands of kilometres away in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan depend on the release of water from this dam.

The Toktogul is literally and figuratively the “valve”of the Syr Darya River. But by relying on large-scale engineering projects to control the river, these countries have ignored the fundamentally political nature of water management.

The significance of the Toktogul dam goes beyond its economic benefits. It was the centre piece of the Soviet Union’s efforts to conquer nature in its drive to modernise central Asia. When it became fully operational in the late 1980s, the project to control the region’s rivers seemed complete.

But the costs have been high. The Aral Sea, the terminal lake of the main sources of water in central Asia, the Syr Darya and Amu Darya rivers, has shrunk to almost nothing. Many areas surrounding what is left of the lake are heavily polluted. Moreover, the now independent Syr Darya riparian countries – Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan – disagree on how the Toktogul should be operated.

In the summers of 2008 and 2009, mismanagement of the Toktogul Dam led to water shortages in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, as well as lengthy power cuts in Kyrgyzstan. Subsequent unrest in Kyrgyzstan triggered the ousting of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev in April 2010, illustrating the highly political nature of water and energy management.

Climate change will exacerbate the problems: it is predicted that rapid melting of glaciers that feed central Asian rivers will shrink water flow over time. The confluence of physical and political changes suggests that water challenges in central Asia could soon become a major flashpoint.

Today’s crisis has its roots in earlier disastrous policies. It was water that first brought the Russians to central Asia in the nineteenth century. Irrigated agriculture had been present for more than 8,000 years, but the Tsarist colonisers realised that agricultural production, notably cotton, could be expanded easily and rapidly. Despite, their optimism, managing the waters of the Syr Darya and Amu Darya Rivers proved a huge challenge for the hydrologists, engineers and bureaucrats involved.

Scarcity of water was never the problem. On average, the region has enough water to grow sufficient crops to feed its own population and earn foreign currency through exports. The problem, rather, is a huge geographic, seasonal and inter-annual variability in water availability.

In response, between 1950 and 1990, the Soviet Union built hundreds of dams, canals and artificial lakes. Uzbekistan’s Hunger Steppe was transformed from an uninhabited desert into a cotton factory of 300,000 hectares. The Kara Kum Canal, when completed in 1988, transferred 12.9 cubic kilometres of water – almost 15% of the Amu Darya River – to irrigate parts of the Kara Kum Desert. The Toktogul Dam, the largest of the lot, was finished in 1973 and served to control the inter-annual variability of water resources and to ensure that there would always be sufficient water for irrigation.

For Soviet planners, dams were symbols of development and modernisation. The Soviet Union’s hydraulic mission was to conquer nature by transforming free flowing rivers into an economic resource. In absence of democracy, dams were also an important source of legitimacy for the Soviet Union.     

But this hydraulic mission caused the decline of the Aral Sea. Once the world’s fourth largest saltwater lake, damming and diverting the Syr Darya and Amu Darya Rivers radically decreased inflow into the Aral Sea; today only 10% of its 1960 volume remains.

The consequences have been dire: salinisation, polluted dust storms and a grim economic outlook for those living around the lake. Life expectancy for people in this region has dropped to 50 years and Karakalpakstan, an area south of the lake, now has one of the highest incidences of tuberculosis in the world.

The ecosystem of the lake and surrounding areas has been devastated. By taming the rivers and controlling nature, the ruling elites caused one of the worst man-made environmental disasters in history.

When the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, there was hope that the newly independent states – Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan – would work together to address the environmental problems. Initially, a number of institutions to manage the region’s water were founded, including the International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea and the Interstate Committee for Water Coordination. But, despite leaders’ passionate pleas, little has been done to alleviate the water problems of central Asia over the last 20 years. As some observers acknowledge, it is all paperwork and no action.

In fact, the challenges for water management have only grown since the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers became cross-border resources. Tensions have escalated, notably between downstream Uzbekistan and upstream Kyrgyzstan. The operation of the mighty Toktogul has been central to this.

The Toktogul dam has multiple functions: it is both the main supplier of water for downstream irrigation, and the main source of electricity for Kyrgyzstan. The trouble is that Kyrgyzstan wants to discharge water from the reservoir in winter to generate electricity, while Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan prefer to discharge water in summer, when they need it for irrigation.

In the past, Kyrgyzstan released water from the reservoir in the summer, in return for gas and oil from Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. But this exchange of resources collapsed when the Soviet Union broke down in 1991. Disputes over the timing of water discharge have brought the two countries to the brink of conflict. Regional institutions have set rules concerning who can use how much water, but no agreement has dealt with the question of when they should receive it.

World Bank analysis indicates all states would profit from sustainable and cooperative water management. But disagreements over the management of Toktogul and other water problems remain unresolved. There are two key reasons for this. 

First, control over water resources is still tightly linked to the legitimacy of the political elites. Timothy Mitchell, an American political scientist, proposed in his book Rule of Experts that “large dams [offer] a way to build not just irrigation and power systems, but nation-states themselves.” 

Indeed, the dams and water management systems of central Asia became key to the nation-building task its countries faced after 1991. The massive irrigation network in the desert areas of Uzbekistan is a source of pride for the country. The fact that the Toktogul provides 90% of the Kyrgyzstan’s electricity production is too. Unfortunately, these goals of water management contradict each other. 

Second, the two countries disagree about what water is. Kyrgyzstan adopted a set of laws in 2001, classifying water as a commodity like oil and gas. This could potentially mean that downstream Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan would have to pay for the storage costs and maintenance of reservoirs, if not for the water itself.

Uzbekistan, on the other hand, officially considers water a free, public good, a view proposed by Marxist-Leninist ideology. It also argues that water comes from God, and can therefore not be traded. In reality, Uzbekistan objects to those laws because it does not want to pay Kyrgyzstan for water.

Fundamental disagreements over whether water is a tradable commodity, and the fact that regional hydro-politics is linked with domestic power struggles, have prevented sustainable cooperation. Violent conflict has only been prevented by ad hoc solutions proposed by national leaders and a relative abundance of water. Given the rapid melting of glaciers that feed central Asian rivers, however, leaders cannot count on this level of water supply indefinitely. More water is predicted to flow into the basin over the next 20 years, but to decline rapidly and unprecedentedly after that. An agreement is urgently needed.

In 2009, the presidents of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan proposed the resurrection of an old Soviet solution to central Asia’s water issues: to divert water from the Siberian Yenisei and Ob rivers to the Aral Sea and the wider region. The plan is financially unviable, and unlikely to be carried out. But if it was, it would unlikely address the real problems. Grand engineering schemes may provide legitimacy to unpopular regimes, but they fail to account for the fundamental political nature of water. Water management requires a political, not a technical solution. 

Eelke Kraak is a DPhil 
candidate at Oxford University’s School of Geography and the Environment.

Homepage image by Firespeaker shows the Toktogul Dam.