By Paul Goble
Just how serious water problems have become in post-Soviet Central Asia both because of longstanding trends and the current drought is underscored by a report that two out of every five of the residents of Tajikistan, one of only two countries in the region with a water surplus, are now facing difficulties in getting water that is safe to drink.
Moreover, officials at the Tajik state agency responsible for supplying water to the population told CA-News last week, the situation in that 7.5 million-strong republic is even worse in some rural districts, a development that is certain to lead to more outbreaks of disease and spark new political problems (www.centrasia.ru/news.php?st=1300778160).
“Despite an excess of water resources,” a Dushanbe official said, “a difficult situation has arisen in supplying drinking water to the population has developed,” one in which almost three out of every four residents is forced to rely on inadequate water distribution facilities or lack them altogether.
The greater part of the water distribution system in Tajikistan was built 40 to 60 years ago and has not been adequately maintained or updated. As a result, “more than 50 percent” of it is not in working order, with all but a tiny fraction of the remainder at risk of failing in the near future.
According to Tajik officials, the situation is especially bad in rural areas where a shortage of funds and “the liquidation of administrative structures which early were responsible” for maintaining the system has left no one in charge and created a situation where what water and sewage facilities there are “do not correspond to sanitary norms.”
“With the transition to mark relations,” one official says, “the budget for the construction of public works, including water systems, was sharply reduced.” As a result, planned construction was either cancelled or spread over a longer period of time. Now, to bring things up to standard would “require colossal means” and the assistance of foreign governments.
Since 2008, Dushanbe has been attempting to rectify the situation as part of a 12-year-program, but even if that program is successful, it will reduce the share of Tajiks who lack access to potable only from 40 percent to 20 percent, meaning that more than two million people there will still not have safe drinking water.
What makes this lack of potable water so striking is that in the glaciers and lakes of Tajikistan are more than 800 billion cubic meters of fresh water, the source of more than 55 percent of all the water resources of Central Asia, of which Tajikistan historically has taken only 15 percent of the total.
If Tajikistan is forced to take more out of this flow in order to deal with its own water crisis, that will have consequences for downstream countries like Uzbekistan with which Tajikistan does not have good relations even now. And thus water could become the cause of new conflicts, possibly involving the use of military force, between the two.
That water can play that role in international affairs is suggested by yet another report last week: Because of a serious drought, Beijing is now buying land abroad in order to ensure that its farmers will be able to feed the still-growing Chinese population, water-driven purchases that could spark additional conflicts as well (www.ng.ru/world/2011-03-22/1_china.html).