Friday, June 25, 2021

Moscow Urged to Revive Siberian River Diversion to Keep Central Asia in Russian Sphere of Influence

Paul Goble

            Staunton, June 21 – One hundred years after Siberian river diversion to Central Asia was first proposed by a Ukrainian scholar and 33 years after the Soviet leadership vetoed it, the idea of such a giant projectis again gaining traction in the region and in Russia both to prevent water wars in that region and to hold its countries within the Russian sphere of influence.

            Those new arguments may prove more compelling that simply meeting the water needs of the Central Asians, Kazakh journalist Zhenis Baykhozha says, although objections about the enormous cost of such a project and about the failure of the countries in Central Asia to manage the water they have are likely to prevent any forward movement (

            Most observers assumed that Moscow’s 1988 decision not to go forward with the idea was the end given that it reflected the profound objections of Russian ruralists and environmentalists who pointed out that whatever good the water would do for Central Asia, it would destroy the ecology and society of much of Russia.

            And for 20 years, that assumption was justified. By in 2009, then-Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov revived the issue and proposed financing it via the formation of an international consortium whose initial investments would be recouped by charging Central Asian countries at least twice what it cost to send water to them.

            Luzhkov’s idea was attacked in Russia for many of the same reasons it had been shot down in 1988; but it gained support in Central Asia and especially Kazakhstan which would benefit from the shortest canal system that might be built to realize it. And now Kazakhs have invoked Russian national interests in support of the project.

            Given that Russia has turned away from Europe and toward Asia, it has no choice, Marat Shibutov, a political geographer there says, but to ensure that Central Asia remains in the Russian sphere of influence, something it will be able to do only if it offers carrots as well as sticks.

            The biggest carrot, he and other Kazakh writers say, is water. If Moscow diverts Siberian river water to the region, the region will be locked into a close relationship with Russia forever given that population growth and industrial expansion mean that Central Asia will need ever more water in the future.

            Shifting the question of river diversion from one of helping Central Asia at the expense of rural Russia east of the Urals to one of promoting Russian national security interests may be enough to overcome the objections of Russians who say that Central Asia should use water more efficiently before asking anyone to give it more.

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