The Waters that Bind

The artificial Nurek Reservoir in Tajikistan. Not my photograph. I've not been to Tajikistan yet.

If I ever write a book about Central Asia, I will title it Until Death do Us Part. Before I came here (and still now to an extent), I generalize about “Central Asia.” This is similar to talking about East Asia or Western Europe as regions: it masks intra-regional differences and conflicts. But generalizations about Central Asia are particularly insidious because common knowledge about the region is insufficient to mitigate against gross over-simplification. When a comment is made about “The Middle East,” our minds account for differences we know exist between Israel, Iran and Egypt. This does not happen with regards to “the ‘Stans.”

The trouble is that “the ‘Stans” really don’t like the neighborhood in which they are grouped. Turkmenistan does not even consider itself part of Central Asia, preferring instead to associate with the Iranian / Persianate worlds (whatever those are), and the other countries can barely cooperate.

It is therefore unfortunate that there are real, and not merely rhetorical, connections between Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan that justify – even necessitate – the regional grouping of these countries into “Central Asia” (or “West Asia,” as I understand the Australians now call it). Primary among these ties that bind are shared water resources. Generally speaking, water resources (i.e. water – and rivers in which hydropower dams can be built) are concentrated and abundant in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, but sorely needed in the dry agricultural countries of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan – and also in Turkmenistan, which is so desiccated that it imports 98% of its water. On the other hand, the upstream countries (Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan) have practically no source of power and hardly any exports to speak of beyond hydropower.

The Soviets had a good solution to the division of resources and differentials in demand: the nerve-center of the command economy – Gosplan, based in Moscow – decreed each year that the upstream countries would allow the necessary amount of water to flow through its hydropower stations in the summer even though electricity was in low demand during this months. The goal was to provide the cotton and wheat-growing downstream countries sufficient water for irrigation. So single minded were the Soviets in reaching this goal that the Aral Sea has all but disappeared since the 1960s.

Map of the Syr Darya, which runs east to west through Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan (again) and Kazakhstan before "reaching" the Aral Sea.

Meanwhile, the upstream countries need electricity for heating in the winter months and demanded compensation for the power generation capacity foregone by allowing the water to flow through the dams in the summer months. Again, Moscow decreed that the downstream countries, which also happen to be rich in “firm”, fossil-fuel energy resources, would burn oil and coal in the winter to meet demand in the upstream countries.

This complicated system prioritized the uneconomic and highly wasteful agricultural industries in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. To this end, Moscow treated all of Central Asia as one political and economic unit, even though technically the region was composed of five “independent” Soviet republics. And it worked, more or less.

It stopped working, however, when the USSR collapsed and the five countries were in fact independent of each other and fiercely nationalistic to boot. Unfortunately, the two major rivers that run through Central Asia – the Amu Darya and Syr Darya – did not change their course to accommodate the new international borders. The Kyrgyz government wants to store water and run hydropower plants in the winter to provide heat to citizens; the Uzbeks and Kazakhs need water in the summer growing months to support their crops. Tajikistan has essentially the same conflict of interests with Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.

Untangling the mess of demands upon the water and of the states upon each other has proven challenging, time consuming and costly. All the major international donor organizations are involved, but the governments in Ashgabat, Astana, Bishkek, Dushanbe and Tashkent do not see eye-to-eye on fundamental issues: who has priority rights to use the water, how to price water resources, even whether water resources should have a price at all. Islam dictates that water is a gift from God to be shared. This is all well and good if you’re Uzbek and want water, but since the Quran does not say as much about oil and gas, the Kyrgyz still have to buy, at world market prices, their heating energy from the downstream countries.

I must admit to being sympathetic to each country’s claims. It is not a question of absolute right and wrong, and although perhaps not to equal degrees, all these countries are dependent upon each other. With so much at stake, however, it is understandably hard for the governments to cooperate. How this fascinating question gets resolved is undeniably going to shape the future development of “Central Asia.” This set of disputes might be the most likely cause of new war of which you, my reader, have probably never heard. Hopefully, however, the regional governments can keep a lid on things.

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