When it comes to trying to resolve vital water-management issues in Central Asia, regional leaders seem to be stuck in mud.
Yet another gathering to discuss water-issues -- a meeting of the International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea, held in Dushanbe on October 9 -- ended in futility. The meeting had hoped to lay the groundwork for a regional water doctrine to govern the long-term use of Central Asian resources, but the failure of Uzbek officials to show up, along with ongoing disagreements, caused the assembly to end without finding a general consensus. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Experts had hoped to have the regional water doctrine finalized for approval in 2009.
The water management issue constitutes a major source of tension in Central Asia. Most water originates in the eastern mountains of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Downstream neighbors Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan rely on the water for extensive irrigation. Upstream countries want to build more hydropower dams to harvest the energy potential of the major river systems, blocking water the downstream countries would like allocated for irrigation. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Discord is costing the Central Asian states a fortune, some experts say. Dyushen Mamatkanov, director of the Kyrgyz National Water and Hydropower Institute, told participants that every year the region squanders $2 billion due to poor water management. Highlighting that waste, each country builds its own electricity transmission lines, rather than share them, leading to extra expenditures and the inefficient transmission of power.
Seasonal floods in Tajikistan also contribute to waste. The country, where almost 60 percent of the region's water originates, cannot afford to improve fortifications along riverbanks to stop rivers such as the Vakhsh and Pyanj overflowing and forming vast swamps. With proper management, this wasted water could be used more efficiently for irrigation purposes.
The Aral Sea fund has come under criticism for ineffectiveness, with many observers noting that in the 15 years since the founding of IFAS, the sea's condition has greatly deteriorated. But an IFAS representative, Anatoly Kholmatov, defended the organization as a facilitator of talks concerning broader water usage and management issues in Central Asia.
Georgy Petrov, a leading Tajik expert on water and energy issues, believes the main obstacle to a water-management pact is a "lack of agreement in interpreting the international legal provisions on trans-boundary and regional water use." Regional officials have signed dozens of international agreements and concept papers since 1991, but implementation has invariably been a problem.
Mamatkanov expressed pessimism that a regional water doctrine could reverse the existing trend of disunity. "It is unlikely that by means of a new document -- regardless of the gravity of its statements -- we could resolve problems we've been tackling for more than 15 years," he said.
He and his supporters say that water should be considered a commodity. But that is where upstream and downstream countries sharply disagree. Upstream states tend to see water resources as a commodity, while downstream leaders feel it is a common resource.
Konstantin Parshin is a freelance journalist based in Tajikistan.