By Kamila Aliyeva
Water remains one of the greatest challenges for Central Asian nations due to the lack of cooperation and regional dialogue on resource management between the upstream and downstream countries.
Central Asia’s main sources of water are two rivers - the Amu Darya and Syr Darya - both of which are tributaries of the Aral Sea, once the largest lake in the world.
The Amu Darya originates in Tajikistan, flows along the border between Afghanistan and Uzbekistan and goes through Turkmenistan before returning to Uzbekistan and falls into the Aral Sea. Together, the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers have about 77 cubic kilometers of water, 96 percent of which is used for irrigation.
The impact of climate change on water problems in Central Asia
Glaciers are the main source of clean drinking water in Central Asia. Almost one third of the Central Asian glaciers are expected to disappear by 2050 due to the effect of climate change and global warming. Such disasters are devastating for the countries whose agricultural sector is the key contributor to the state’s GDP. Moreover, the key transport infrastructure might be washed away taking long time for further restoration.
It is forecasted that due to the melting of mountain glaciers, the river runoff in the Amu Darya river basin will be reduced by 30 percent, compared with the average annual runoff over the past 10 years. This will lead to increased spring runoff, causing more flooding, as well as dramatically reduced water availability in the summer, causing more droughts.
Such situation will negatively impact the agricultural sphere that dominates in the economies of Central Asian nations.
Controversies over water issues among Central Asian nations
The reason for poor water management lies in the fact that downstream countries (Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan) and upstream countries (Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan) have conflicting interests in how these water resources should be used.
Downstream countries are strongly dependent on irrigated agriculture while upstream countries are more focused on expanding reservoir capacity and hydroelectric power generation. In summer the downstream countries want water for irrigation while the upstream countries want to accumulate it for winter power generation.
In the Soviet times a system of compensation for the upstream countries with oil and gas from the downstream countries was introduced, but currently all five countries have their own national interests.
International community’s efforts to solve water-related issues in Central Asia
A number of international institutions including the International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea, the Interstate Coordination Water Commission of Central Asia, and the Research and Information Centre have been established in the region to fight with water scarcity.
These organizations, as well as a number of water management projects, have received financial and technical assistance from international agencies, such as Swiss, German, and American international development agencies, the United Nations Development Programme, the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and the European Union.
Another high-level event 'Towards Implementation of the International Decade for Action 'Water for Sustainable Development' 2018-2028' within the framework of the United Nations General Assembly was held on September 19.
Tajikistan’s President Emomali Rahmon attended the event. He expressed the confidence that the realization of these goals and tasks is possible only if cooperation and mobilization of the necessary resources - human, financial and scientific - is enhanced.
Rahmon said that efforts and aspirations in the framework of the UN and other organizations and institutions undertaken during this forty-year period contributed to the expansion of the process of access to safe drinking water, improvement of knowledge and skills in the field of broad water resources management, strengthening cooperation and integration in the water sphere, formation of new views and bases for consideration of world and regional problems connected with water resources.
Despite these advances, the Tajik President in his speech suggested to take into account those factors that narrow the arena of further cooperation. Effective transnational cooperation can promote sound and sustainable management and use of water resources, and lead to a reduction in unjustified costs and a balance between different forms and uses of water resources, according to the president.
Concluding his speech, Rahmon noted that as the initiator of the International Decade of Action ‘Water for Sustainable Development’ Tajikistan intends to create a Special Center to ensure coordination of activities for its implementation. Also in order to implement the National Action Plan to promote the International Decade, he proposed to hold an international conference on this topic in Dushanbe in 2018.
The fate of hydro energy projects in Central Asia
Both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are involved in construction of hydro power plants aiming to provide energy security in their countries. Lack of electricity in these two states remains an extremely important issue.
In 2007, Kyrgyzstan resumed construction of the Kambarata-2 project, abandoned in the 1990s. The first unit of the Kambarata-2 hydroelectric project will allow Kyrgyzstan to produce an additional 500 million to 700 million kilowatt hours per year of electricity.
Kyrgyzstan's ambitions to control the flow of its rivers in order to generate more hydroelectric power are of particular concern to Uzbekistan as it relies on rivers that originate or pass through Kyrgyzstan and its mountainous neighbor, Tajikistan, to irrigate its cotton fields.
The Kambarata project is only the first of several projects planned along the Naryn River, which rises in the Tien Shan Mountains and is dammed at Toktogul, the largest reservoir in Kyrgyzstan, before running on to merge with another river to become the Syr Darya. The power plant has received critique from energy experts who argue that the Kambarata dams are too expensive.
The construction and exploitation of Kambar Ata HPP and the Upper-Naryn cascade will allow Kyrgyzstan to produce about five billion kilowatt hours of electricity per year and cover the growing needs of the population.
However, the implementation of Kyrgyz ambitious project to construct the Upper-Naryn cascade remains questionable due to inability to attract foreign investment.
Representatives of the Czech company Liglass Trading, which was the surprise winner of a tender last summer, acknowledged on September 18 that they do not have the money to proceed with the project.
Tajikistan is also suffering from poor management of water resources, as during the winter months the country faces electricity shortages and severe cold.
One of the most controversial dam projects is the Rogun HPP on Vakhsh river. This project also caused tensions with Uzbekistan because it claims that water flows will be seriously decreased.
The Rogun HPP is seen as a solution to the energy independence and a tool for economic growth in Tajikistan. By implementing the project, Tajikistan will be able to generate about 13 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity annually. This will not only help the country to meet its domestic needs but will also make Tajikistan a major exporter of electricity.
The HPP is being constructed on the upper reaches of the Vakhsh River in the Pamir mountain ranges. The project is being developed by OJSC Rogun Hydropower Plant on behalf of the Government of Tajikistan.
Approximately $4 billion is needed to complete the country's main energy project - Rogun HPP. About 2 billion somoni have been allocated from the state budget for the completion of the hydroelectric power station this year.
The Rogun HPP construction project was developed during the Soviet era. Construction of the plant was initiated in 1976, but stopped after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The dam should form a large Rogun reservoir with a total volume of 13.3 cubic meters.
The project is criticized because of the location in the zone of high seismicity, landslide and mudflow processes, and the presence of a tectonic fault filled with rock salt under the base of the dam.
Central Asian nations have to unite efforts
In order to find solution to the key water problems in the region, all five Central Asian nations should unite their efforts and begin constructive dialogue. The first attempts have already been made during the recent meeting between Kyrgyz and Uzbek leaders Almazbek Atambayev and Shavkat Mirziyoyev.
Both sides stressed that one of the key factors of the Central Asia’s well-being is the integrated use of water and energy resources, taking into account the interests of all the states of the region.
They also agreed on the rational use of water resources in accordance with the common interests.
Although it doesn’t mean that Uzbekistan supports the construction of HPPs in Kyrgyzstan, the country demonstrated its readiness for open dialogue and compromise.
Kamila Aliyeva is AzerNews’ staff journalist, follow her on Twitter: @Kami_Aliyeva
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