Wednesday, 30 January 2002


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By Marat Iskakov and Anara Tabyshalieva (1/30/2002 issue of the CACI Analyst)

BACKGROUND: A new heated discussion is taking place between Aral Sea Basin countries. Downstream Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan demand more water for irrigation from Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, which are located upstream in the region's river system. Upstream countries possess significant hydro-energy resources: after Russia, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan hold the second and third places in hydropower resources among CIS countries.

BACKGROUND: A new heated discussion is taking place between Aral Sea Basin countries. Downstream Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan demand more water for irrigation from Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, which are located upstream in the region's river system. Upstream countries possess significant hydro-energy resources: after Russia, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan hold the second and third places in hydropower resources among CIS countries. Both upstream countries have hydropower stations (HPS) on rivers flowing to Uzbekistan, southern Kazakhstan, and eventually into Turkmenistan. The two main rivers Syr Darya and Amu Darya provide three quarters of the region's water. There is a competition for Syr Darya water between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan's ambitions to increase the area of irrigated land by several factors would exacerbate tensions between Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan over shares of Amy Darya water. In the 1980s, two major Central Asian hydropower stations, Toktogul HPS (Kyrgyzstan) and Nurek HPS (Tajikistan) with 19.3 and 10.5 billion cubic meters reservoirs, respectively, were constructed. They allowed for the accumulation and regulation of water in favor of downstream countries for multiyear periods. The electric power generated by these HPS was transmitted and distributed through the Central Asian energy network. Soviet planners considered irrigation needs to be the priority issue. Uzbekistan was a main producer of cotton for the Russian light industry. Under these circumstances, priority was given to water accumulation in dams rather than demand for electric power in upstream countries. The Ministry of Energy, the Ministry of Water Resources, and other state agencies in Moscow set the rules of water and energy management. Central authorities took decisions on all kinds of fuel for thermal power stations as well. Kazakhstan, a main supplier of coal, and Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, the providers of gas, followed central instructions; all prices for fuel were the state regulated and much lower than world ones. The Central Asians had only meager information and even less access to Soviet decision-making on energy and water management. Over-dependence on cotton cultivation and the irrational use of water and energy greatly contributed to the crisis of the Aral Sea, once the fourth largest lake on earth. Due to economic mismanagement, the once fertile area became a deadly desert.

IMPLICATIONS: The situation in the management of water and energy dramatically changed since the unexpected collapse of the Soviet Union. The transition to market economy demanded real horizontal cooperation between newly independent states. The downstream countries, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan have no significant water reservoirs able to accumulate an adequate amount of water for seasonal regulation, making the issue an international one. The main disagreement between upstream and downstream countries stems from the fact that the latter require water mostly in the time of cultivation for irrigation purposes, whereas Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan need water mainly for electric power production during the winter season, when its electricity consumption increases by a factor of two to three comparing with summer. In Kyrgyzstan, over 80% of electric power is provided by HPS, and around half is generated during the winter months (November-March). Additionally, Uzbekistan usually halts gas supplies to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan during wintertime, making the heating problem most sensitive there. Economic leverage becomes a popular tool for officials to wield to alter the policies of upstream small countries. To survive in wintertime Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have to increase the use of electric power generated by HPSs. In the beginning of 2002, the Toktogul reservoir has a much lower amount of water than a year ago, and in spite of this reduction in capacity, Kyrgyzstan continues to generate electric power and to discharge water. As a result, in spring and summer, the reservoirs may not be able to deliver an adequate amount of water for irrigation in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Uzbekistan, the world's fifth largest cotton producer, earns ca. 40% of all export earnings and 75 per cent of hard currency from cotton. That the government will be tempted to use political pressure on upstream countries to resolve tensions over water is only predictable. Meanwhile, people in Central Asia consume 110 to 120 billion cubic meters of water, which is several times more than in the Middle East. The efficiency of the Central Asian irrigation systems is low. An estimated 60% of water is wasted due to irrational use and ineffective irrigation. In Uzbekistan alone, more than two billion cubic meters of water are wasted every year. This is the amount of water that Soviet planners intended to divert from the Irtysh river in Siberia to the Aral. Many experts believe that water-related tensions could partly be resolved if water was used more efficiently. Additionally, the level of technical and commercial losses in the energy sector is relatively high; it impedes the maintenance of enterprises there. Moreover, given the very low purchasing power of the population, it will cause a curtailing of business activity and a further decline of production output. Social tensions increase because, for pensioners for example, payments for electricity, heating and gas will almost equal the whole amount of their pensions.

CONCLUSIONS: The water and energy problems require urgent attention in the following spheres. Firstly, there is a need for a long-term agreement between Aral Sea Basin countries on water use and fuel. Secondly, the improvement of the current irrigation system and canals,  the establishment of a water market, and measures regarding the rational use of water are urgent. The development of irrigation systems, water-efficient technologies, and the reduction of technical and commercial losses of water and energy resources would allow to mitigate growing tensions in the region. In the long term, the most important issue is to complete the construction of the Ragun HPS in Tajikistan and Kurpsay HPS in Kyrgyzstan. Both are located upstream of the existing major HPSs. New HPSs will produce electric power for upstream countries, while water will be accumulated in the Nurek and Toktogul reservoirs for irrigation in downstream countries.  The five countries have a common stake in using the water and energy resources of Central Asia. Water problems are a serious threat to stability in Central Asia. The leaders of the five Central Asian republics have a unique opportunity to develop the truly effective management and use of regional water resources.

AUTHORS' BIO:  Marat Iskakov is a director of Consulting Firm ISTMAR, and worked for several international projects in the energy and water sectors. Anara Tabyshalieva is a visiting scholar at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute of Johns Hopkins University-SAIS.

Copyright 2001 The Analyst. All rights reserved

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The Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst is a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program, a Joint Transatlantic Research and Policy Center affiliated with the American Foreign Policy Council, Washington DC., and the Institute for Security and Development Policy, Stockholm. For 15 years, the Analyst has brought cutting edge analysis of the region geared toward a practitioner audience.


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