But just as a similar Chinese project involving water from Lake Baikal has frightened Russians with the idea that a thirsty China will drain that lake, Tajikistan’s willingness to sell any water to a Beijing company breaks a taboo and potentially threatens the delicate balance between water-surplus countries and water-short countries in Central Asia.
Along with Kyrgyzstan, mountain Tajikistan is one of the former with its glaciers providing more water than its population consumes and allowing it to go downstream to Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and even Kazakhstan, all of which depend on that water flow for their populations and economies.
In Soviet times, Moscow allocated water between the two groups; but since 1991, there is no hegemon in the region to do so. Negotiations among the five have been complicated, disputes have been many, and some of them have even contributed to violence in border regions. Dushanbe’s agreement with China will only add to those problems.
Tajikistan has been talking to China and Iran for more than a decade about selling its water to one or both of these countries. But it has been constrained by the opposition of other Central Asian countries. It justifies its current actions by arguing that it must sell water to reduce the pressure on a dam holding back the Sarez Lake, which contains 16 cubic kilometers of water.
But other Central Asian countries say that Dushanbe could solve that problem by providing more water for them rather than by selling the water to an “out of area” country like China or anyone else.