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Population Growth, Global Warming Forcing Central Asians To Seek Bilateral Water Accords With Each Other And With Russia And China – OpEd

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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).

Paul Goble

Paul Goble

Paul Goble is a longtime specialist on ethnic and religious questions in Eurasia. Most recently, he was director of research and publications at the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy. Earlier, he served as vice dean for the social sciences and humanities at Audentes University in Tallinn and a senior research associate at the EuroCollege of the University of Tartu in Estonia. He has served in various capacities in the U.S. State Department, the Central Intelligence Agency and the International Broadcasting Bureau as well as at the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Mr. Goble maintains the Window on Eurasia blog and can be contacted directly at [email protected] .

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