Report Calls on Central Asian Countries to Stop Using Water, Energy as “Coercive Tools”

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan

Disputes over shared water resources are exacerbating problems among Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, according to a new report by NGO the International Crisis Group.

The report, “Water Pressures in Central Asia,” published last week, called on these Central Asian nations to stop using water and energy as “coercive tools” and start looking for ways to reach bilateral agreements.

Political rivalries, economic competition, heightened nationalism and mistrust are all obstacles to finding solutions to the region’s growing water and energy needs, it found.

“Corruption, hidden interests and inflexible positions in all three states hinder a mutually acceptable solution,” said Deirdre Tynan, Central Asia Project Director for the International Crisis group. “A common development strategy focusing on reform of agricultural and energy sectors would be in their interest, but such an initiative requires a radical shift in the way regional leaders think.”

Upstream Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have a surplus of water, while Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are concerned about getting their fair share of water from the region’s two main river systems -- the Syr Darya and Amu Darya.  

Uzbekistan in particular has been very vocal in its opposition to energy-starved Tajikistan's planned Rogun hydropower project; Tashkent is concerned that the project will affect water releases Uzbek farmers need for irrigation. 

Back in July, residents of a village in the Uzbek enclave of Sokh, located within Kyrgyzstan, accused their Kyrgyz neighbors of cutting off their drinking water and irrigation supply when Uzbek authorities refused to open a road through a disputed area.

That same month, a Tajik man was killed and at least seven others wounded as a result of a clash near a disputed area on the border between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, where Tajikistan is building a water supply pipeline. The clash also involved border guards from both countries.

The need to work together is becoming greater as these countries grapple with challenges including a growing population -- almost 10 million in the region since 2000 -- outdated farming practices, failing infrastructure, corruption, and the effects of climate change.

“The failure of Bishkek, Dushanbe and Tashkent to resolve cross-border water problems shows a worrying disregard for stability in their common area,” said Paul Quinn-Judge, who heads the group’s Europe and Central Asia Program. “Strained ethnic relations and competition over water and land could be a deadly mix. Conflict in this volatile part of Central Asia risks rapid, possibly irreversible regional destabilization.”

With all the problems facing the region, the report said water one offers the most promising avenues of cooperation, since resolving water issues and establishing equitable water distribution could provide benefits to all.

The report offered recommendations to both Central Asian governments and international organizations working in the region, including developing separate water-sharing agreements for the Syr Darya and Amu Darya rivers and promoting bilateral water- and energy-sharing agreements between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan and Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

The report recommended that the governments of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan make a commitment to resolve border problems without using water and energy as a coercive factor; form a tripartite intra-regional council to oversee water and land management; investigate and prosecute corruption and misuse of donor money; launch large-scale public education programs on water waste; and ask donors to design and implement cross-border economic development projects.

For the international community, particularly donors, the report recommended focusing on expanding programs that modernize infrastructure, prioritizing water issues at the highest levels of engagement within governments, working directly with local communities and the smallest units of government to combat corruption, and building energy sector reform.