Central Asia is a landlocked region of some 4 million square kilometers with only 80 million inhabitants, a mere 2 percent of Asia’s population. Yet it sits astride $3 trillion of fossil fuels and remains a crossroads at which the interests and influences of foreign lands meet. New, sometimes virulent, nationalisms and the recent resurgence of Islamism divide the area. And it is entirely reliant on the availability of a resource — water — the supply of which is continuously diminishing in relation to an ever-growing demand.
In short, Central Asia’s water system could collapse, possibly within a year, putting the region’s stability in jeopardy. Without institutions and expertise to help in better allocating this scarce resource, the repercussions could be felt the world over.
The degree of water’s importance to the region is a simple matter of geography and climate. Central Asia is arid except for the mountainous regions of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, where annual precipitation feeds the region’s major rivers, the Amu and Syr Darya. It was these rivers, and the Aral Sea into which they drained, that interested the Soviet Union in the 1920s. Central Asia’s last foreign overlords, the Soviets produced 20,000 miles of canals, 45 dams, and 80 reservoirs, providing water for agriculture and industry. The system was centrally controlled from Moscow until 1991, after which a group of untested national governments was forced to manage what had been a unitary economic system untroubled by largely factitious borders.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, the newly established Central Asian republics all enshrined the principle of resource sovereignty in their constitutions. Their legalistic claims had, of course, little to do with hydrological reality. In upstream Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, two nations with only a negligible share of fossil fuels, water provides the cheapest source of electricity. This is especially important in the winter months, when heating needs are the most urgent. In order to generate hydropower during those months, the Kyrgyz and Tajiks spend the warmer ones husbanding water in several large reservoirs.
But that is precisely when downstream Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan have the most pressing need for irrigation water. This means that upstream and downstream demand patterns are diametrically opposed, and seasonal variations and the partitioning of infrastructure have led to a species of water diplomacy that follows deal-making with deal-breaking and uses rivers as collateral.
As the importance of the rivers has grown, their viability has diminished. An ever-warming climate is likely to exacerbate this trend, since it will cause glacier and snow volumes to drastically shrink in the future. The current conditions of extreme water scarcity do not bode well. They are the result of below-average precipitation levels and exceptionally low winter temperatures in 2007/08 — Central Asia’s coldest winter in 40 years — which have increased Kyrgyzstan’s hydropower requirements. The water level in the Toktogul reservoir, one of the region’s principal reservoirs, has not been as low as it was at the start of the 2008 agricultural season in more than 20 years. If such conditions persist, water scarcity is likely to worsen, increasing internal social tensions as farms flounder, and putting an unprecedented strain on fragile interstate relations.
The newly established republics enshrined resource sovereignty in their constitutions but their claims had little to do with hydrological reality.
These relations have global implications, starting with Afghanistan. The country shares 12 percent of the Amu Darya basin with the five Central Asian republics; its growing demand for hydropower as well as for irrigation water means its continued involvement. This implicates the US, as increasing political unrest in the region would likely further empower Central Asia’s Islamic militants. This could easily turn the area into a new Pakistan, creating a massive open border across which men and material could move with impunity. Such a development would also cause Russia and China to become further involved, as each wish to ensure that the area’s vast energy stores flow in their own direction.
What is urgently needed in the region is a new long-term transboundary water and energy resource-sharing agreement that is efficient, fair, and flexible. Quantitative models must be developed, as they will allow the measurement of trade-offs stemming from the allocation of these resources while accounting for future economic and environmental uncertainties. Such trade-offs would allow the hydrocarbon-rich but waterpoor republics to provide energy compensation in return for guaranteed water supplies. As part of this process, a supra-national institution should be established to explicitly deal with questions of natural resources allocation in the region, as well as to foster dialogue and mutual trust between the multiple stakeholders.
The international community should back this institution — both with money and expertise — as the consequences could not be more dire. The implosion of national economies, precipitated by water failure, would witness the obliteration of all stabilizing social mechanisms and the onset of chaos, with all the accompanying brigandage and brutality it summons. — Tobias Siegfried is a researcher at Columbia University’s Earth Institute. Lion Summerbell studies political science and history at McGill University.
Originally published January 7, 2009