Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Water Disputes Exacerbating Border Clashes in Central Asia

Paul Goble

            Staunton, June 14 – Water shortages caused by drought and increasing use of water supplies by upstream countries are exacerbating border clashes in Central Asia, yet another way in which problems in one sector are causing problems in another, including violence, and opening the way to more confrontations in that region in the future.

            Two weeks ago, in a clear example of this trend, villagers on opposite sides of the border between Kyrgyzstan and the Uzbek enclave of Sokh within that country clashed over water in violence that left more than 200 injured and resulted in one death (

            Senior representatives of the two governments rushed to the scene to try to calm the situation, and the presidents of the two countries declared that they did not want to have any repetition of these events which tragically have become all too frequent in recent years, especially since water shortages intensified after 2015. 

            But they have yet to make much progress in demarcating and delimiting the borders or on agreeing on how to share scarce water resources along their borders and especially between one country and enclaves belonging to the other but entirely surrounded by the first, as in the case of Sokh, the largest Uzbek enclave within Kyrgyzstan.

            Some 80,000 people live in that enclave, of whom approximately 65,000 are ethnic Tajiks. The borders of that district have yet to be delimited, let alone demarcated. And conflicts over access to water are now making the difficult process of doing both even harder than it was in the past. 

            The upstream country of Kyrgyzstan has been retaining more water for its own needs, justifying its failure to allow more to flow to downstream Uzbekistan by the fact that Tashkent has not paid for the water as it had promised to do. Uzbekistan counters that it hasn’t paid because it hasn’t received the water.

            In September 2017, the leaders of the two countries committed themselves to finding a solution to the border and water disputes; and they can point to the fact that they have agreed to a line on 95 percent of their common border.  Moreover, there have been 96 sessions of bilateral talks on these issues since that time.

            But the clashes of May 31 are a reminder that however much progress has been made, there will be serious problems and more clashes ahead unless and until both border and water disputes are resolved. And those clashes also show that each will be more difficult to resolve because of the existence of the other.

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