Central Asia: The First Water War?

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The Central Asian republics—all of them struggling with economic stagnation, drug trafficking, extremism, and internal violence—are facing another issue that is becoming increasingly contentious: water scarcity. The planned hydropower projects of water-rich Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are met with fierce opposition from their wealthier downstream neighbors: Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan. The dispute over water could go two ways: either it becomes a driver for finding a peaceful and mutually beneficial form of regional cooperation, or a cause of war.

The essence of the problem lies in the unequal distribution, or rather, unsustainable usage, of the resource. The Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers provide most of the freshwater for the five Central Asian countries. Originating in the mountains of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, the rivers flow northwestwards through Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan, before draining into what is left of the Aral Sea. During the early Soviet era, plans were made to convert the desert plains of the Amy Darya and Syr Darya basins into arable land, mainly for the production of cotton. Massive irrigation networks were constructed and by the 1980s, nearly 90 percent of water use in Central Asia was directed toward agriculture, 75 percent of which stemming from the Amy Darya and Syr Darya rivers.[i] Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Central Asian republics have been struggling to come up with workable water policies.

In the case of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan, it is largely the Soviet agricultural programs that have left them with an insatiable thirst for water. Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are interested in the resource for a different reason: to generate electricity. As opposed to their riparian neighbors, the two are endowed with significant potential to produce hydroelectricity. Because of the massive investments required for the construction of dams and power stations, however, neither of them has been able to capitalize on these advantages yet. On the contrary, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have had difficulties balancing annual summer surpluses in electricity production with crippling winter shortages. In Tajikistan, energy production during the winter months is so irregular that the country has been experiencing frequent blackouts, making it dependent on gas supplies from Uzbekistan.

Since the early 2000s, exploiting their hydropower potentials has been a top priority for Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Dushanbe has resumed construction of the Rogun dam on the Vakhsh river, a main tributary of the Amu Darya. At 335 meters, the dam that was originally planned and begun by the Soviets in 1976 would be the tallest in the world. And the hydropower station at its base could double Tajikistan’s power-generating capacity. But at projected costs of up to $6 billion, the completion of Rogun would also eat up almost an entire year-worth of the country’s GDP. Kyrgyzstan, too, wants to build a large dam, Kambarata, on a feeder river of the Syr Darya. To bring the generated electricity to new markets in south Asia, the two countries are seeking additional international funding for a power line through Afghanistan on to Peshawar in Pakistan. Estimated costs: $1 billion. Of course, completion of Rogun and Kambarata would in turn greatly increase investors’ interest in the power line.

The downstream countries, particularly Uzbekistan, view these projects as threat. The dams would likely lessen the water flow, endangering Uzbekistan’s cotton production—an industry that currently employs one third of the country’s labor force. In addition, the hydropower surplus would decrease Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan’s dependence on foreign gas supplies, robbing Uzbekistan of an important market and decreasing its political leverage. In times when water or energy was centrally managed by Moscow, these disparities in natural resource endowments did not present a problem. Now that the Central Asian countries act independently, however, commodities are being used as a means to exert political pressure on each other. Several small episodes of such “resource wars” have already occurred: in June 2013, Kyrgyz farmers blocked an irrigation canal on the border with Kazakhstan. As a consequence, Kazakhstan launched the construction of a new canal bypassing Kyrgyz territory. And then there is Uzbekistan, which has gotten into the habit of restricting gas supplies to Tajikistan, mainly in an effort to target the country’s key industrial enterprises. Kyrgyzstan also fell victim to this practice in June of this year, when, after the Kyrgyz gas network had been taken over by Russian Gazprom, Uzbekistan responded by stopping to export gas to Kyrgyzstan, shutting off hundreds of thousands households and industries in the Fergana valley.

The construction of the Rogun dam is such a loaded issue, because the dam has become a symbol of Tajikistan’s national sovereignty and the number one pet project of President Emomali Rahmon. In 2010, the World Bank came into play, offering to assess the economic viability and regional impact of Rogun. Its draft assessment, which was published in June this year, largely vindicated the position of Tajikistan by explicitly approving the project from a technical, financial, and socioeconomic perspective. The report noted that  the country did not yet use its full water allocation as established in the Interstate Commission for Water Coordination (ICWC), and that the damn would allow Tajikistan to do just that. On the other hand, the resettlement of over 40,000 people, which has already proven hugely problematic[ii], and potential reductions in summer water flows that would adversely effect downstream irrigation were mentioned as problems that needed to be tackled.[iii]

There is little doubt that the World Bank report presents the results of years of meticulous, comprehensive analysis. Nonetheless, its assessment, which was intended as a means to foster constructive engagement of the Central Asian countries on water issues, might serve to deepen political confrontations among them. Uzbekistan, as was to be expected, expressed its strong discontent with the World Bank’s conclusions. Russia on the other hand, which had disapproved of the project since 2004, when Russian aluminum giant RusAl’s bid to build Rogun was rejected, switched sides once more to express its support of the dam. Russia’s change of mind, which was likely directed at Uzbekistan, relations with which had been cooling as of late, perfectly illustrates the volatility of the Central Asian water dispute. By hinting at the possibility of foreign investment, Russia, China, and the U.S.—all of which have specific strategic interests in the region—have been stirring the pot in Central Asia, which might further intensify the dynamics of the conflict. Conveniently, in July this year, there were also reports pointing towards a favorable feasibility assessment of the Kyrgyz Kambarata project. Building the 1,860 megawatt dam is expected to cost $3 billion dollars, 50 percent of which coming from Russian RusHydro.[iv]

Apart from reducing the height of Rogun—which President Rahmon will not hear of—there might be other possibilities to lessen the effects on water flows and avoid an escalation of the conflict. These are aimed at prompting all countries to think beyond their immediate national interests. Uzbekistan for one thing would do well to plan for reduced water flows irrespective of whether Rogun is completed or not (climate change might cause the flow of water from Tajikistan’s glaciers to abate on its own). To irrigate its cotton fields, Uzbekistan consumes 50% of the Amu Darya and Syr Darya’s flows. Most of this water, between 50 - 90%, is seeping away in the old Soviet trenches that are used for irrigation. If Uzbekistan upgraded to more modern “drip irrigation” methods, it would not only be prepared for decreased flows, but end up with a considerably more efficient cotton industry.[v] Another option to incentivize Uzbekistan to modernize its production methods would be the introduction of a moderate water pricing system. The country does, after all, use most of the water in the region, without compensating its neighbors in any way. Tajikistan in turn could offer Uzbekistan to take a stake in its hydropower projects, the profits of which could then be reinvested in supporting Uzbek cotton farmers and modernizing irrigation systems. In addition to any equitable pricing or sharing system, the five countries should work towards establishing a mutually recognized decision-making and conflict-resolution system. All of these measures could help to reduce the combined losses stemming from mismanagement of water resources, which the UNDP estimates account for 1.7$ billion annually.

For economic and geopolitical reasons, it has to be the goal of Western governments and multilateral institutions to actively promote such collaborative efforts between the five Central Asian countries. Their authoritarian leaders are certainly not known for their talent to reach mutually beneficially agreements by default, and the language is getting increasingly heated: in 2012, Uzbek leader Karimov for the first time announced that Kyrgyz and Tajik hydropower efforts could “spark war.”[vi] When countries with a long history of internal violence go against each other, the consequences could be disastrous—at best leaving a void to be filled by extremist groups—and would thus not necessarily limited to the region.


[i] John C. K. Daly, “Central Asia’s Growing Water Wars,” Silk Road Reporters, June 17, 2014, http://www.silkroadreporters.com/2014/06/17/central-asias-growing-water-wars/

[ii] Human Rights Watch, “We Suffered When We Came Here. Rights Violations Linked to Resettlements for Tajikistan’s Rogun Dam,” June 25, 2014, http://www.hrw.org/reports/2014/06/25/we-suffered-when-we-came-here-0

[iii] The World Bank Group, “Fifth Information-Sharing and Consultation Meeting on the Assessment Studies of the Proposed Rogun Hydropower Project (HPP),” Reports, July 14-18, 2014,


[iv] Vecherniy Bishkek, “Kambarata-1 dam will be higher than expected,” July 19, 2014, http://www.vb.kg/doc/280981_plotiny_na_kambar_atinskoy_ges_1_bydyt_vyshe_chem_predpolagalos.html

And: ibid, “RusHydro offered to pay 50% of the upper Naryn cascade,” March 14, 2014, http://www.vb.kg/doc/265501_rysgidro_predlojilo_oplatit_50_proekta_verhne_narynskogo_kaskada.html

[v] Reddy J. Mohan, Shukhrat Muhammedjanov, Kahramon Jumaboev, and Davron Eshmuratov, “Analysis of Cotton Water Productivity in Fergana Valley of Central Asia,” Agricultural Sciences 3.6, October 2012, http://www.scirp.org/journal/PaperInformation.aspx?PaperID=23403#.U_uNfbySzpY

[vi] Raushan Nurshayeva, “Uzbek Leader Sounds Warning over Central Asia Water Disputes,” Reuters, September 7, 2012, http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/09/07/centralasia-water-idUSL6E8K793I20120907