|The Aral Sea has shrunk by 70% since the 1960s. This barren landscape was once the seabed. BBC|
Central Asia’s wealth of natural resources – oil, gas, metals to name but a few – is well known. But while these are important to economic progress in the region, one particular resource has the potential to bring de-stabilisation and even conflict. That resource is water. And in Central Asia water is neither evenly distributed, nor is there enough of it.
The growing scarcity of water and its potentially catastrophic effects on populations, known as water-stress, is a worldwide problem. The United Nations (UN) estimates that in the past century alone, demand for water has increased by a factor of 7 due to population growth. As a result, 1.2 billion people live in areas where water is scarce; with 500 further million headed in this direction. But another facet of this revolves around interstate competition for water which highly increases the potential for violent conflicts in the future. It is such interstate competition which makes Central Asia a prime candidate for conflict. Not only are there 5 states vying for limited and shrinking water resources, but the combination of geography, history and geopolitics make for a particularly volatile mix.
The mountainous regions of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are the main sources of Central Asia’s water, making Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan dependant. Historically this was not a problem as water distribution was managed centrally by Moscow, essentially blocking any disputes from arising. However, since independence, a regional approach to water policy has been extremely difficult to achieve. The reasons for this are twofold. Firstly, the Soviet legacy of central planning means these states lack experience in promoting regional policies through their own initiative. This combined with the nationalist outlook which has prevailed across the post-Soviet space further hinders regional approaches. The end result of all this is the prevalence of national policies which favour individual states’ advancement at the expense of region wide co-operation which would benefit all – a zero-sum game.
Secondly, the relative strengths and weaknesses of the states involved further promote this zero-sum mentality. The downstream states may be short in water supplies but they are far stronger in terms of their carbon and energy supplies. Hence the poorer upstream states tend to seek vast hydroelectric projects which offer their only opportunity to foster foreign investment. These are in turn perceived as threats to the agricultural production of the downstream states. Essentially, each side uses the resources they are rich in as leverage, simply fostering further competition and distrust. Obviously, regional consensus of water-distribution, or lack of, is heightened by a myriad of other disagreements. Border delineation is common problem– Uzbekistan has border disputes with every single one of its neighbours. Ethnic disputes are also prevalent – another result of Soviet policies. Even transport routes represent a source of discord with, for example, Uzbekistan blocking the development of a railway transit to Tajikistan. Geopolitics simply adds another layer of intrigue to all this. Surrounded by Russia, China, Iran, India and Pakistan – Central Asia is a resource-rich playground for powers who seek to achieve regional domination.
An example of all these aforementioned factors at play is the Rogun Dam in Tajikistan. Originally envisaged by the Soviets and now an important infrastructural project for the Tajiks, the dam is causing extreme displeasure to Uzbekistan. Another contested Tajik hydroelectric project is the now completed plant Sangduta II, funded by Iran and also fiercely opposed by Uzbekistan. Kyrgystan’s ongoing Kambarata I dam construction may have achieved some regional consensus but has depended on a US$1.7 billion loan from Russia.
|Water scarcity by region. Central Asia is already classed as water-stressed. UN Water.|
The international community is not blind to the likelihood for conflict that water shortages and disputes present. In 2002, then UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan stated that ‘fierce national competition over water resources has prompted fears that water issues contain the seeds of violent conflict’. There are now a number of organisations working towards the regulation of water flow in the region including the UN, the Organisation for Security and Co-Operation in Europe (OSCE) and the World Bank; the latter often forced to arbitrate in the Rogun Dam dispute by request of Tajikistan.
But, all of this translates into a very complex puzzle for anyone hoping to push towards a resolution of Central Asia’s water dilemma. While the interest of these organisations is praiseworthy, looking to resolve water-issues alone will not work. Any framework for co-operation will, by simple necessity, have to include the region’s two closest and most powerful neighbours – China and Russia – whilst also taking into account much broader regional economic, social and political factors. The UN Special Programme for the Economies of Central Asia (SPECA) includes water distribution in its agenda recognising that it ‘is critical for economic and social development in the region and meeting basic human needs of its populations’, but progress is slow and until the wider intra-regional problems are addressed the water issues will remain. A key requirement is making Central Asia’s leaders understand that the ability of each state to flourish individually will ultimately depend on their commitment to reaching regional consensus and of course on their willingness to share their rich resources.
The international community will no doubt struggle in this goal. The current international climate means that the focus is much more likely to be on the Middle East with the Arab Spring and Iran’s nuclear ambitions rightfully stealing the limelight. However it is vitally important to start seriously addressing water disputes both in Central Asia and elsewhere through consolidated frameworks which include economic, social and political engagement. While it seems unlikely now, it is such disputes which could in the future become a very real source of violent conflict, particularly when one considers that more than 260 of the world’s river basins are shared by two or more states. In Central Asia water stress combined with an abundance of other factors make this even more probable.