By Paul Goble
Conflicts among the countries of Central Asia over water are far more explosive than even conflicts among different ethnic groups or territorial disputes, Sultanbek Sultangaliyev says; and they are only going to grow because of rapidly rising populations and overuse of water by them.
Indeed, Askar Muminov writes in Kazakhstan’s Central Asia Monitor, ever more analysts are predicting that the situation will lead to a major war among two or more of them within this century (camonitor.kz/31634-s-vodoy-pokonchili-my-schety-smogut-li-strany-centralnoy-azii-dogovoritsya.html).
At present, the five post-Soviet states in the region have not been able to come up with anything analogous to the arrangement in Soviet times when the two water surplus republics (Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan) provided water to the downstream ones (Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan) in the summer in exchange for a reverse flow of energy in the winter.
And the absence of such arrangements has been compounded by rapid population growth – more than 10 percent since 2000 – and irrational and irresponsible water use: Turkmenistan is rates as the most inefficient user of water in the world, with its citizens and businesses using 13 times as much water per capita as the US. The other countries in the region aren’t far behind.
Sultangaliyev points out that as a result, “Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have tried to use their natural resource cards in the form of water resources to put pressure on Uzbekistan, something that has not led to anything good.” And he argues that the countries have no choice but to negotiate and to do so immediately.
Rafael Sattarov, another Kazakh political analyst, agrees but is pessimistic about the prospects of an agreement anytime soon. At present, he says, talks are effectively frozen; and despite hopes and expectations, regime changes in some of these countries have failed to break the deadlock.
And a third Kazakh political scientist, Zhaksylyk Sabitov, suggests that instead of an accord, the countries of the region are likely to pursue individual strategies that will bring them ever more frequently into conflict, promote desertification and even threaten famine in some places.
“We have already seen how as a result of the race for easy cotton money in the Soviet era, the Aral Sea was almost completely destroyed. Therefore, today, in the resolution of water disputes, it is necessary to consider not only the economic effects but the possible harm to the environment.”
He suggests that a future agreement will have much in common with the Soviet arrangement, albeit without Moscow as mediator. And because of the absence of anyone who can play that role, Sabitov says that reaching an accord is likely to take a great deal of time but adds that the search must begin now.