Wednesday, September 11, 2019

‘Downstream’ Central Asian Countries Facing Horrific and Growing Water Shortages, Expert Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, September 7 – While Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, the so-called “upstream” countries in Central Asia, have enough water for their needs well into the future, the three “downstream” countries – Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan – face the possibility of an ecological catastrophe because of water shortages.

            Once again, at the second Central Asian forum on water issues held this week, the two groups were unable to agree even on the principles that might define some future agreement let alone make progress toward a deal, Albert Beloglazov of the Institute for the Study of Central Asia says.

            The irreversible death of the Aral Sea as a result of declining flows from the Amu-Darya and Syr-Darya river systems, flows that have been cut into by global warming and the reduced size of snow cover in the upstream countries and increased water use by downstream ones, are a warning sign of what may lie ahead for other countries: desertification and health disasters ( 

            In Soviet times, Moscow simply ordered the allocation of water among these republics, forcing the downstream countries to provide the upstream ones with energy supplies in exchange for water. But since 1991, the five countries of the region have not been able to agree either on a new political arrangement or on how to use the market to allocate this resource, he says.

            Rapid population growth is adding to the problem: Thirty years ago, there were 48 million residents in the five republics. Today, there are 72 million; and demographers project that there will be “more than 100 million” a generation from now, Beloglazov continues, adding that the continued planting of crops needing massive amounts of water make this even worse.

            In the absence of massive outside assistance or regional economic-political integration under some outside power, neither of which appears likely to happen anytime soon, the three downstream countries face ever more serious water problems which threaten to become both domestic and international political ones, the expert says.

            Uzbekistan, which has the largest population and the greatest amount of land being used for agriculture, is the most at risk.  Turkmenistan is in trouble as well even though it is smaller on both measures because unlike Uzbekistan, it must rely exclusively on trans-border rivers, having no significant ones of its own.

            Ashgabat currently takes “about 45 percent” of the Amu-Darya flow, something, Beloglazov suggests, is “creating major problems for Karakalpakistan and the remnants of the Aral Sea.  And while the situation in Kazakhstan is somewhat better because of domestic rivers, it too faces water shortages and desertification in many regions.

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