By Paul Goble
Lower than normal snowfalls last winter in the Pamirs and Hindukush mountains are leading to serious problems for Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and Iran – including shortages of water for crops and consumption, refugee flows, “and even military actions,” according to Fergana news agency reporter Aleksandr Rybin.
Two weeks ago, Tajikistan President Emomali Rakhmon said that his country this year has only 20 to 25 percent of the water flow it normally does; and local people say that “they can’t remember a time when there was such dry weather that grain crops have been destroyed” (fergananews.com/news/29904 and fergananews.com/articles/9980).
In Uzbekistan, the drought has meant that rice yields this year are down by 40 percent. Tashkent tried to prevent a dramatic price rise by releasing reserves; but, Rybin reports, that has not been successful. Rice prices in May alone rose 16.7 percent. The situation in Afghanistan is even more dire. There two million people face hunger as a result of the drought.
Iran too is suffering from drought and for the same reason as Central Asia proper. Last winter was the driest on record over the last 50 years. Tehran says that 96 percent of Iranian territory is now suffering from drought. Water rationing has been introduced in rural areas, and extra police have been sent into the villages to maintain order.
A year ago, Rybin continues, the Fergana agency published a discussion about whether conflicts over water resources could lead to violence and war (fergananews.com/articles/9147). That article focused on the retreat of glaciers and the rapidly rising population: In the region, 10 of its 60 million people were born after 2000.
The Aral Sea has already died, and now Lake Balkhash in Kazakhstan is drying up as well. That process has been accelerated both by the drought and by China’s decision to divert water for human use from the Ili River, a major feeder of the lake. Over the last four years, the water levels in the lake have fallen by four meters.
Experts say that the chance of armed conflicts over water are now increasing, the Fergana analyst says. Despite improved relations between Uzbekistan and its neighbors, the rapidly deteriorating situation in Afghanistan regarding water and food could lead to tens or even hundreds of thousands of refugees crossing international borders.
And that in turn could mean violence, especially as the receiving countries are in almost as bad shape in terms of water and food as Afghanistan now is. Another sign of just how bad things have become, Rybin says, is that a black market in water is emerging in many places, the kind of corruption that can feed violence as well.