Staunton, March 17 – The spread of Islamist radicalism from Afghanistan into Central Asia attracts far more attention in Moscow and the West but increasing water shortages divide and destabilize that region at least as much and perhaps more, according to Sergey Zhiltsov, a specialist on water issues in the CIS at the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Diplomatic Academy.
In today’s “Nezavisimaya gazeta,” Zhiltsov, who has prepared major studies on the Caspian and various trans-border rivers, argues that the water-surplus countries of Kyryzstan and Tajikistan are on a collision course with the water-short countries of Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan that need water for agriculture and civilian populations (ng.ru/ng_energiya/2015-03-17/10_asia.html).
Although the five Central Asian republics pledged to cooperate in October 1991 and in a series of subsequent declarations, he says, “the countries of the regions have not been able to overcome conflicts over the division of water.” Instead, each of the five has pursued its own national interests often narrowly defined.
As an example, Zhiltsov points to the situation that occurred in 1993 when Uzbekistan stopped sending gas to Kyrgyzstan because Bishkek had not paid for it. In response, the Kyrgyzstan authorities blocked the flow of water into Uzbekistan, arguing that they needed to retain the water to guarantee the production of electric power in the winter.
But there have been many other cases, he says, when Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan used their water resources to put pressure on Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan who need the water from rivers that rise in the first two. That situation has been exacerbated by the rise in price of oil and gas from the latter on which Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan depend.
Fights over water allocation have had an impact on the more general relations of the countries in the region, and conflicts in those for other reasons have played back into and intensified fights over water with those having water seeing it as a useful device to defend or promote their interests with those who don’t.
These fights have often taken the form of support for or opposition to the building of hydroelectric dams and supporting reservoirs in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, and they have sparked interest in some of these countries in putting a price on water, something the Soviet system signally failed to do but that some believe might open the way to settlements.