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Expert proposes resolution for Central Asia’s enduring water problems

3 June 2015 12:11 (UTC+04:00)
Expert proposes resolution for Central Asia’s enduring water problems

By Trend

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, donors have spent millions trying to solve Central Asia’s chronic water and energy problems, but Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan have wasted this opportunity, director of International Crisis Group’s Central Asia project, which recently published “Water Pressures in Central Asia” report, told Trend.

“A new strategy is called for, both in the region and by those who would help it, including Western states and Russia,” Deirdre Tynan said.

After more than two decades of political independence, millions of people still have inadequate access to clean water in the Central Asia, according to the expert on the region.

Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan could again face energy shortages this year, despite huge potential as producers of hydroelectric power, Tynan believes. She noted that water supplies have even triggered cross-border skirmishes in the Ferghana Valley. These have been limited so far. But they have the potential to trigger a chain reaction that brittle Central Asian governments would struggle to contain without significant loss of life.

According to the expert, Kyrgyzstan, with low water levels in the Toktogul reservoir, faces a real dilemma. The country’s meager budget struggles to buy power elsewhere. Last winter, people were told to buy coal for heating their homes. But 37 percent of the population already lives in poverty and many are live in apartment blocks with no chance of an open fire. In impoverished Batken province, people collected firewood and animal dung to burn. The lights stayed on in Bishkek, but only just. Plans to perhaps raise the cost of electricity this year will cause further discontent and anxiety.

In Tajikistan, ordinary people often live with three hours of power a day or less while the lights in the Italianate palazzos of the political and economic elite glitter all year round, Tynan said. Such failure of basic services and falling living standards are fomenting anger. This adds up to a new threat to state stability at a time when popular disillusionment growing.

Despite such looming dangers, regional states are not changing course, the expert noted. Previous water-sharing agreements, largely modeled on the Soviet-era arrangements, are ineffective today.

“Upstream Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan and downstream Uzbekistan see each other not as partners managing a shared resource, but as opponents battling to secure mutually exclusive gains at the expense of their neighbors. There may be regular meetings and a slew of post-Soviet water-sharing agreements, none of which are legally binding, but Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are drifting ever further apart,” she said.

The expert noted that irrigation-intensive cotton remains the Uzbek government’s main source of foreign currency. If water is withheld in the Toktogul reservoir this summer, thousands of Uzbek farmers will be hard hit.

She reminded that the Uzbek government has a history of using economic blockades to pressure its neighbors. Tashkent reckons that Bishkek and Dushanbe might be planning to do the same with water, and could take military action against new hydropower plants and reservoirs currently planned in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

“Uzbek President Islam Karimov has warned of war, and Russian, Western, and local officials do not think he is bluffing,” Tynan said.

The problem is not so much that there is not enough water, but how it is used, Tynan stressed.

“The outlines for an eventual deal that donors and the international community should press for are clear. Uzbekistan should convincingly promise to end the massive wastage and loss of water due to outdated irrigation methods and bad farming practices. At the same time, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan must commit to manage the proposed reservoirs of water in a responsible manner. Rooting out mismanagement and corruption would be a start,” she said.

For their part, international donors – of which Russia is a part, as a member of the World Bank and the Organisation of Security and Cooperation in Europe -- must act to insist on prosecutions for the embezzlement of millions of dollars in aid money for water projects, the expert noted. New projects should aim to work through the smallest, most local units of government possible. Continued funding of urban and rural water-supply projects should be contingent on the successful application of anti-corruption measures.

“The funders of large scale hydropower plants should insist on rigorous financial oversight and overall reform of the energy sector. Russia, as the leading investor in large scale hydropower plants in Kyrgyzstan, should insist on rigorous financial oversight and overall reform of the energy sector,” Tynan said.

The Kambarata-1 and the Upper Naryn Cascades have the potential to transform energy production in Kyrgyzstan, but with estimated costs in excess of $3 billion it is vital that these projects do not become a vehicle for graft or derailed by bureaucracy, the expert noted.

A new regional agreement on water will likely take a long time, however, Tynan believes.

“As a start, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan should focus on more modest bilateral agreements on shared water. They should accelerate the long-running process of border delimitation and back away from confrontation in disputed areas. Cross-border infrastructure and water-management projects would also go some way to alleviating tensions in the Ferghana Valley. If better bilateral agreements can be brokered, they could eventually form a platform for a regional one,” she said.

Russia, and other members of the international community and donors should use all the leverage they have to persuade them to take this path, reverse the dynamics that might lead to armed conflict and lay the foundations of shared prosperity and equitable water supplies instead, according to Tynan.

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