By Paul Goble
Rapid population growth which is leading to greater demand for water and global warming which is reducing the amount flowing through the rivers of Central Asia is forcing the countries of that region to seek accords regulating the amount of water those with surpluses will allow to flow downstream and those with shortages to use.
Not only has this crisis intensified in recent years, but efforts to resolve it have changed form. In Soviet times, Moscow imposed the rules on the Central Asian republics requiring the water-surplus republics of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to supply fixed amounts to the water-short republics of Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan.
With the demise of the USSR, the five Central Asian countries hoped to reach a region-wide agreement based either on similar rules or by establishing a price for water so that the countries could govern the flow of water in that way. Neither of these efforts has resolved the underlying conflict; instead, the delays have made the situation potentially explosive.
In the last few years, the five countries have increasingly sought to resolve the problem by the use of bilateral accords, an approach that typically operates below the radar screen of outsiders but has not yet achieved what the water-short countries hope for, and they have also begun bilateral talks with China and Russia.
China faces water shortages in its western regions and wants to buy water from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan (windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2012/12/window-on-eurasia-china-enters-and.html). Russia in contrast has a large water surplus, but any talk about sending water south is explosive (windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2019/05/moscow-talking-to-beijing-about.html).
In this situation where a broader regional approach seems impossible, the countries of the region are increasingly turning to bilateral talks. Some are going well but others are not; and on the outcomes of these conversations will likely depend whether the region remains peaceful or not in the coming decades (windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2019/09/downstream-central-asian-countries.html).
(On these various bilateral talks and their state of play, especially with respect to the two largest countries in the region, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, see ritmeurasia.org/news–2020-03-08–kazahstan-svjazhet-sebja-s-sosedjami-soglashenijami-po-obschim-rekam-47874 and caa-network.org/archives/19316).
If no agreements are reached, many rural areas will be transformed into deserts and their populations will flee to the cities, thereby creating increased political tensions these countries are ill-equipped to deal with (windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2019/07/desertification-already-depressing.html).