The Impending Water Crisis in Central Asia: An Immediate Threat

Editors’ Summary: Central Asia lies at the heart of the Eurasian super-continent. Encompassing six Central Asian republics of the former Soviet Union (Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan), as well as Afghanistan, Mongolia and the Western most province of China, Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, its population of some 120 million straddles the crossroads among the great dynamic economies of Russia, China, the Indian Subcontinent, the Middle East and Europe. Senior Fellow and Executive Director of the Wolfensohn Center for Development at Brookings, Johannes Linn, has argued that the region’s stability and prosperity will be a key factor in determining how effectively the Eurasian economic space can integrate in the coming decades. Based on a recent visit to the region, he will over the next five weeks provide a series of assessments on key issues facing the region.

For an update on this commentary, read The Compound Water-Energy-Food Crisis Risks in Central Asia: Update on an International Response »

Khorog, Tajikistan, June 2, 2008 –
Flying from Tajikistan’s capital city Dushanbe to Khorog, capital of Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region, you see below you the imposing Pamir mountain range, located at the heart of Central Asia and home to many of the biggest glaciers of the world. In normal years the jagged mountain peaks are still deeply covered with snow and ice and the many rivers they give rise to are full with the melting waters of spring and early summer. These waters fill the many reservoirs for release throughout the scorching summer months to the vast irrigated farmlands and innumerable household plots of the down stream countries of Central Asia and thus provide a livelihood of millions of poor farmers in the region. The reservoirs also supply essential electricity during the subsequent winter months when the region once again is in the grip of the deep freeze of its continental climate. Khorog is located on the River Panj, which further downstream becomes the great Amu Darya River and eventually ends in the dying Aral Sea far to the north. Across the River Panj lies the arid north-eastern region of Afghanistan.

This year, on a day that is unusually hot for beginning of June, as I fly over the Pamirs and remember similar trips in earlier years, the snow cover on the mountains looks thin, the signs of receding glaciers are evident, and the rivers and streams are running low or are altogether dry at a time of year when they should be flowing strong. As we pass Tajikistan’s largest reservoir, Nurek – built in Soviet days with a dam 300 meter high, one of the highest in the world –, we see vast stretches of the artificial lake drained empty, with the high water mark many meters above the current all-time low level of the lake’s intensely green-blue surface. These are the signs of what will very likely become a major crisis facing Central Asia over the next twelve months or more, since the drought that grips this mountain region is part of a much broader ecological disaster-in-the-making.

Central Asia is fundamentally an arid region, with its most fertile regions former deserts made arable by vast irrigation systems. Most of the water comes from the mountain ranges of Kyrgyz Republic and Tajikistan (and to a lesser extent from Afghanistan) channeled downstream to Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan through the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers. Over the last century Soviet engineers harnessed these water resources with an extensive system of dams and irrigation canals to support the rapidly growing populations of the downstream countries and their agricultural production that in turn supported the Soviet Union. The dams also produce electricity, but peak demand for electricity is in the cold winter months, when water needs to be stored for summer irrigation release. During Soviet days downstream countries provided the upstream countries with gas and coal in the winter to allow them to generate heat and power without releasing water.

With the breakup of the Soviet Union the elaborate set of water and energy sharing agreements among the Soviet republics of Central Asia largely broke down and the previously integrated regional water and electricity infrastructure became fragmented and suffered from lack of maintenance. With overuse and poor water management agricultural yields stagnated or fell, and the water levels of the Aral Sea dropped precipitously, leaving behind a mere remnant of what was previously one of the largest inland seas in the World. As a result the provinces around the Aral Sea, in particular the Karakalpakstan region of Uzbekistan, suffered great hardships and increases in poverty. While the Central Asian republics of the Former Soviet Union avoided open conflict and military hostilities over scarce water resources, their relations have been strained, especially between Tajikistan and Kyrgyz Republic on the one side and Uzbekistan on the other.

Against this backdrop, a water and energy situation that is already difficult and tense at best during years of normal weather can quickly deteriorate into a major humanitarian, economic and political crisis for the region. This and next year shape up to be particularly problematic, since normal climatic cycles (probably linked to the El Nino-La Nina phenomenon) appear to be intensifying and are overlaid on the long-term effects of global warming. The last major drought in the region occurred in 2000-01. It affected not only the republics of the Former Soviet Union, but also Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan and Mongolia, with devastating effects on the region’s agricultural production. According to the International Institute for Research on Climate Prediction in 2001 half of Tajikistan’s grain crop failed and cereal production dropped 15% below that of the previous year.[1] A UN team reported during the same year that the regional drought severely affected some 550,000 to 600,000 people in Uzbekistan.[2] International agencies organized a major relief initiative at the time.[3]

This year the situation in the region may well turn out worse. The summer of 2007 was unusually hot and dry in much of Central Asia, followed by an exceptionally cold and dry winter. The winter had its most severe impact in Tajikistan, where parts of the country had to do without electricity altogether for weeks at a time, shutting down schools and limiting hospital operations, and forcing families to live without heat or light during the winter months when temperatures as low at -30 degree Celsius were not uncommon. Even Dushanbe was severely affected by power cuts to the point that international organizations were on the verge of evacuating their personnel, including locally hired staff, for humanitarian reasons. Tajikistan’s situation was aggravated by the fact that Uzbekistan, plagued by its own winter energy shortages, suspended gas exports and limited transfer of electricity through its territory. At the same time, the food situation in the country deteriorated, as farmers had to eat or sell their seed stock, cattle ran short of feed, aquaculture suffered from frozen ponds and streams, and food supplies from neighboring countries dwindled along with rising prices.[4] Kazakhstan, the main grain exporter in the region, banned exports, including to its neighbors, reinforcing the damage done by the world food crisis beyond its borders. While spring and early summer brought welcome relief from sub-zero winter temperatures, it turned out to be another dry season, with reports of pastures in the south of the country parched already early in the year. With water levels in the reservoirs as low as they are already now and no relief in sight for the rest of the year, the next winter even if less severe than the last, will again bring months with little or no electricity for seven million Tajiks.

Tajikistan will most likely be joined by other countries in the region facing the ravages of drought., a regional news service, reports that the Kyrgyz Republic’s major reservoir, Toktogul, has a volume one third below the level of 2007 and that two of the region’s principal rivers, Syr Darya and Narin, are running at one tenth of the usual rate, according to local hydrologists.[5] Like Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan depends on electricity for the winter months and will likely face great difficulties later this year. Downstream in Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and especially Uzbekistan, low water levels in the Syr Darya and Amu Darya will once again hit farmers severely. Two Uzbek reservoirs, Charvak and Tujabuguz, are reported by to be as much as 60 percent lower than a year ago, and that major rivers are running at less than 50 percent of their usual flow.[6] If the drought of 2000-01 is any guide – when rivers and reservoirs were at 60-80 percent of normal capacity and half the fields of Karakapalkstan, Uzbekistan’s poorest region, had to do without irrigation water – this year could be even worse. View images of Uzbekistan’s Charvak Reservoir from 2007 (figure 1 & figure 2) and today (figure 3 & figure 4).

Aside from the human hardship and the economic losses caused by the lack of water in summer and by lack of electricity in the winter, the looming crisis has the potential to result in cross-border conflicts at the community and state level. Eurasianet, another regional news service, reported on June 6 that between March and May 2008 disputes along unmarked portions of the Tajik-Kyrgyz and Kyrgyz-Uzbek borders flared up over water-related tensions among cross-border communities.[7] In early June, Reuters reported that annual negotiations over water sharing agreements between Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan had broken down over Uzbekistan’s refusal to accept a Kyrgyz offer of a water discharge of 1.2 billion cubic meters for down-stream use.

So far international reaction to the unfolding water and related energy crisis in Central Asia has been limited to emergency assistance for Tajikistan. Among others, the US has provided nearly $2.5 million in emergency relief to Tajikistan since January 2008.[8] The World Bank provided a $6.5 million emergency grant for rehabilitation of key energy facilities and to assist with the development and implementation of the Government’s Energy Emergency Mitigation Action Plan.[9] The World Bank also is providing up to $5 million in grants for emergency agricultural farm inputs and animal husbandry.[10] The FAO has been carrying out an assessment of the food security situation as a basis for a coordinated response by the international community. Whether the Tajik government’s efforts and the international community’s emergency response are sufficient to stave off the worst of the crisis for Tajikistan later this summer and during winter remains to be seen. But what appears to be clear is that no systematic assessment of the extent and potential impact of a potential regional water shortage this year, for Central Asia as a whole, has been carried out as yet and that no regional emergency response is under preparation.

In sum, by all readily available indicators a serious regional water and energy crisis in Central Asia appears to be looming for the next 12 months and perhaps more. Regional governments and the international community need to react quickly to forestall major economic, humanitarian and political consequences. Therefore the following four steps are very urgent:

1. An expert assessment of the Central Asian water and energy shortage and its impacts is needed immediately. The international agencies that have the capacity to carry out such an assessment (the Asian Development Bank, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, the UN Economic Commission for Europe and/or the World Bank) should organize such an assessment on a priority basis in cooperation with the governments in the region and with regional water agencies.

2. Depending on the outcomes of such an assessment, regional governments and international agencies need to plan emergency responses, similar to those delivered during the drought of 2000-01, but possibly at higher and more sustained levels.

3. The UN, the international financial institutions and bilateral international partners engaged in Central Asia (including the European Union, China, Russia and the US) should use available diplomatic mechanisms to ensure that possible inter-state tensions over the management of scarce water and energy resources in the region are managed effectively without spilling over into open conflict.

4. The long-term prospects of water and energy balances in the region need to be assessed in the light of changing climatic conditions, both in terms the apparent widening swings of weather cycles, but also in terms of the likely impact of long-term of global warming on the water and energy resources of Central Asia.

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[6] ibid.

[7] Alisher Khamidov in Eurasianet, June 6, 2008