PRAGUE, 30 January, Caucasus Times -The world financial crisis is having an increasingly greater impact on the Central Asia, adding extra pressure to the socio-economic challenges facing the region. The attention and efforts of regional governments are currently focused on tackling problems that arise as a result of the financial crisis, instead of development. The current market situation has pushed back the resolution of existing issues, particularly energy and water-related.
The root of the problem lies in the fact that the water resources of the Central Asian Region are unevenly distributed. The region is clearly divided into water-resource rich countries (Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan) and the countries dependent on them for supplies (Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan). Kyrgyzstan controls the Syr Darya river basin, while Tajikistan controls the basin of the Amu Darya.
At 3019 km, the Syr Daria is the longest river in the Central Asian Region, and is second in terms of water flow volume. Its basin measures 219 000 km2. 75.2% of the river’s flow originates in Kyrgyzstan, with 15.2% added in Uzbekistan, 6.9% in Kazakhstan, and 2.7% in Tajikistan. The other water artery of the region – the Amu Darya – is 2540 km long, with a basin measuring 309 000 km2. Like the Syr Darya, the Amu Darya loses much of its volume to irrigation. Approximately 74% of the Amy Darya’s flow originates in Tajikistan, 13.9% is added in Afghanistan and Iran, and 8.5% in Uzbekistan.
It is evident that the water and energy-related problems are multifaceted. Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are interested in using water resources to develop hydroelectric energy for their own use, especially during the autumn and winter periods, as well as for export to third parties (Afghanistan, Pakistan).
Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan oppose such resource management, insisting that hydroelectric plants built during the Soviet era should be used primarily for irrigation purposes, as should the hydroelectric plants whose construction is currently in the planning stages.
The use of the hydroelectric plant at Naryn (Kyrgyzstan) for maximum energy yield leads to numerous problems, water experts complain. First of all, large releases of water from the Toktagul reservoir in Kyrgyzstan lead to the annual flood of many towns and agricultural plots in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan. Second of all, the use of the hydroelectric plant at maximum power during the winter and autumn months leads to the Toktogul reservoir’s drainage during irrigation season, which adversely affects a considerable part of the neighboring republics’ agricultural land. Finally, experts say, the unwise management of water resources in Central Asia could lead to a decrease in water supplied by the two rivers to the shrinking Aral Sea.
There are also disputes between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan surrounding the construction of new hydroelectric plants. The main area of concern is construction along the rivers Zershavan and Panj. Plans are currently drawn up for fourteen hydroelectric plants, with power from 300 to 4000 Megawatt, and energy output of up to 86.3 billion kilowatt/hour annually. Another sticking point is the completion of the Rogunsk hydroelectric plant – soon to be Central Asia’s largest – along the Vakhsh River in Tajikistan.
Neighboring Kyrgyzstan is trying to keep up with Tajikistan’s energy plans by seeking foreign investors for the erection of two cascades at Kambaratinskii hydroelectric plants 1 and 2, located close to the source of the Syr Darya. Russia has recently become interested in the project, promising Kyrgyzstan a $2 billion loan.
This activity is naturally causing Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan considerable anxiety, since it entails the inevitable and significant contraction of water flow to the republics.
Kazakh officials have repeatedly stressed the need for cooperation in resolving these issues. In the meantime, the deadlock regarding the mutually beneficial use of Central Asia’s water resources was supposed to be resolved at the summit of heads of state of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, held at the end of October 2008 in Astana. However, the financial problems that affected the SCO members’ economies forced issue to the periphery.
Many expected the summit to produce intergovernmental dialogue on water and energy problems. Particularly topical were questions regarding the shared use of the rivers Chardara and Syr Darya, as well as the legal status of the Irtysh. According to many analysts, the rational use of water from the Irtysh has been a topic of discussion for several years now between Kazakhstan, Russia and China.
According to Daniyar Yarmukhamedov, an expert in international law, problems surrounding the Irtysh River are a complex web of political, economic, humanitarian and environmental aspects of international dispute settlement. It should be noted that within Kazakhstan’s borders, 2.5 million people live around the river’s basin, while the northwestern and central regions host large industrial centers for the extraction and processing of minerals – Ust’-Kamenogorsk, Semipalatinsk, Pavlodar. The further development of industry and agriculture is directly related to the water resources provided by the Irtysh, says Yarmukhamedov.
In the meantime, China has nearly completed the construction of the 22-meter wide, 300 km long canal, stretching from the Black Irtysh river, towards the city of Karamay – the oil and gas center of the Xinjiang Uyghur autonomous region. The aim of the project is to increase employment and economic activity in the region in order to relieve some of the social tensions present there and achieve stability. Kazakh experts worry that the canal will disrupt the natural balance of the Irtysh and cause water levels to drop in Lakes Balkhash and Zaisan.
To resolve these problems, China’s head of state Hu Jintao and Kazakhstan’s president Nursultan Nazarbaev agreed two years ago to set up stations along trans-boundary rivers, manned by representatives from both countries, that would regulate water levels. Agreements were signed between the two states, although the problem remains unresolved, since China has continued work on the canal.
Experts say the deadlock could be broken by Kazakhstan, China and Russia joining international conventions dedicated to the settlement of disputes regarding trans-boundary rivers. Once their status is ratified, they will end up with a legal basis for the negotiation of bilateral and multilateral agreements. These conventions also contain important clauses that guarantee each state a fair share of water from the trans-boundary river basin; delineate each one’s obligations for the maintenance of reservoirs with regards to ecological standards; and prescribe methods for the cooperation between governments in this area of law, including notification and information exchange.
Thus, for example, the “Helsinki Convention on the protection and use of trans-boundary watercourses and international lakes” defines “trans-boundary watercourse” as any surface or subterranean body of water that crosses the borders of two or more states, or located along such boundaries. The Convention calls for all sides of a given conflict to recognize the importance of protecting and thoughtfully using trans-boundary watercourses. Governments that sign the Convention are obligated to take all measures to prevent, limit and minimize trans-boundary impact. This last fact, experts say, is the main obstacle for the Chinese, who are well aware of the consequences of increased drainage from the Irtysh for other countries bordering its basin.
However, China has joined neither the Helsinki Convention, nor the Convention on the Law of the Non-navigational Uses of International Watercourses. It also continues to insist on regulating trans-boundary watercourses on a solely bilateral basis. Therefore, the question of water use and the legal status of the Irtysh remains unresolved.
The growing water crisis in Central Asia could directly affect Russia, the country’s experts believe. For example, the renewed project to build a canal from Siberia to Central Asia could have catastrophic consequences. According to the deputy director of the Novosibirsk Institute of Economics, Yu. Vinokurov PhD., the drainage of as little as 5-7% of water from the Obi River could lead to the disruption of fisheries; the change in heat balance of large parts of the Russian Arctic, which in turn would lead to climate change across vast territories; the disruption of ecosystems of the Lower Obi region and the Gulf of Ob; and the loss of thousands of square kilometers of fertile land in the Zauralye. The overall ecological damage in this case could be in the billions of dollars.
It should be noted that in the framework of the Eurasian Economic Community, an attempt was made to create a water energy consortium, which, according to many experts, is the only solution to the numerous points of contention. Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan expected the consortium to provide a kind of guide to the construction of hydroelectric facilities, while Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan were hoping to receive guarantees for a rational and stable means of ensuring their water supply. However, both parties were to be disappointed. In late 2008, Uzbekistan announced its withdrawal from the Eurasian Economic Community, thus rendering nearly all mutual agreements null.
Thus, water and energy-related issues remain unresolved. At their last meeting, members of the Shangyai Cooperation Organization were unable to address the majority of pressing concerns. The danger posed to every government by the financial crisis has forced countries to redefine their priorities and direct their efforts towards battling economic ills.
In the meantime, experts say, the cluster of problems resulting from water resource management will grow further as a result of egotistic approaches by each of the Central Asian governments. However, some optimism can be derived from the fact that these governments are still willing to continue the dialogue concerning water and energy. Thus, in a press release by the Shanghai Cooperation Organization it was stated that “These issues highlight the importance of the upcoming meeting between the directors of environmental protection agencies of the Organization’s member-states.”