Nothing irritates Tashkent more than neighboring countries' plans to build hydropower dams upstream. But rather than making the usual effort to thwart those plans with blockades and talk of “war,” a senior Uzbek official has offered some constructive advice.
Uzbekistan’s Deputy Water and Agriculture Minister Shavkat Khamraev told UN Radio this week that the only way to solve arguments about Central Asia’s unevenly distributed water resources is to construct small hydropower stations instead of giant dams, like the ones upstream Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan hope to build on the tributaries of the region's main rivers – the Amu Darya and Syr Darya.
Speaking of Tajikistan and the Amu Darya in particular, he said in a March 19 interview, "Let them build. We are also building small hydropower stations that do not alter the water and environmental pattern of this river and its basin.”
Khamraev is in New York to attend a March 22 meeting on water cooperation at UN headquarters. A Tajik delegation is also expected to attend.
The two countries are at loggerheads over Dushanbe’s plans to build what would be the world's tallest dam, Rogun. Dushanbe pins great hopes on the 335-meter dam, believing it will ensure energy security for the country, which now depends heavily on its neighbors.
Tashkent, however, says Rogun will hurt its agricultural sector and poses unnecessary risks in a seismically active region. Last fall, President Islam Karimov said projects like Rogun could “spark not simply serious confrontation but even wars.”
As the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, Turkey's southeast region appears to be rich with water resources. But a new study indicates that the reality might be quite different. From a release about the study, issued by NASA and the University of California, Irvine:
Scientists at the University of California, Irvine; NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.; and the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., found during a seven-year period beginning in 2003 that parts of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran along the Tigris and Euphrates river basins lost 117 million acre feet (144 cubic kilometers) of total stored freshwater. That is almost the amount of water in the Dead Sea. The researchers attribute about 60 percent of the loss to pumping of groundwater from underground reservoirs.
The findings, to be published Friday, Feb. 15, in the journal Water Resources Research, are the result of one of the first comprehensive hydrological assessments of the entire Tigris-Euphrates-Western Iran region. Because obtaining ground-based data in the area is difficult, satellite data, such as those from NASA's twin Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellites, are essential. GRACE is providing a global picture of water storage trends and is invaluable when hydrologic observations are not routinely collected or shared beyond political boundaries.
There are many things the Central Asia countries can’t agree on – but water often tops the list. Now Turkmenistan, which generally allies with inflexible Uzbekistan on water issues, is risking Tashkent’s wrath as it seeks to attract foreign investment to expand and modernize its thirsty cotton industry.
Reuters reports that Textile Industry Minister Saparmyrat Batyrov told an investment conference on October 17 that Ashgabat is seeking more than $1 billion to develop new textile plants by 2016.
Cotton already plays an important role in Turkmenistan’s economy. The country ranks as the world's ninth-largest producer of cotton according to a recent US government estimate.
Turkmenistan's prized “white gold” is used to produce jeans and other cotton products that are exported internationally. The Ashgabat-based Turkmenbashi Textile Complex claims Wal-Mart, Calvin Klein and JC Penney among its clients.
Two issues which blight the cotton industry in Central Asia remain obstacles to these ambitious plans, however -- the abuse of child labor and the region’s scarce water supplies.
President Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan has upped his rhetoric against neighboring Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, warning that their efforts to build hydroelectric power stations on rivers upstream could spark war.
Speaking during an official visit to Astana on September 7, Karimov launched a broadside against Bishkek and Dushanbe, which, he said, “forget that the Amu-Darya and Syr-Darya are trans-border rivers.”
“Why do you think such questions [sharing limited international water resources] are discussed by the United Nations?” he asked in remarks quoted by Kazakhstan’s Bnews website.
It was a rhetorical question: “Because today many experts declare that water resources could tomorrow become a problem around which relations deteriorate, and not only in our region. Everything can be so aggravated that this can spark not simply serious confrontation but even wars.”
Karimov has long been a vociferous opponent of plans by Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan to complete long-stalled hydropower dam projects -- Rogun on the Vakhsh River (the headwaters of the Amu-Darya) in Tajikistan and Kambarata on the Naryn River (which becomes the Syr-Darya) in Kyrgyzstan.
Tashkent says the dams could disrupt water supplies to downstream states, adversely impacting its economy and damaging the environment. Bishkek and Dushanbe counter that they need to harness hydropower to kick-start their ailing economies.
To turn international donors’ attention to Tajikistan’s economic problems, President Emomali Rakhmon often reminds visitors of his country’s enormous hydropower potential. But in Central Asia, water resources are a constant source of friction between the post-Soviet states. Never deterred, Rakhmon has become adept at shifting attentions to harmony and coexistence – with a little pomp and circumstance. Yes, another regional water consortium has come and gone in Dushanbe.
Rakhmon helped convince the UN General Assembly to declare 2002, “The International Year of Fresh Water,” and 2005-2015, “The Water for Life Decade.” Both came to Dushanbe with large conferences and dozens of jet-setting experts. Earlier this month, speaking at another gathering, Rakhmon suggested 2012 be declared, “The Year of International Water Diplomacy.”
Experts from more than 70 countries and 65 international organizations attended “The High-level Conference on the Mid-term Review of the Implementation of the International Decade ‘Water for Life: 2005-2015’” in Dushanbe from June 8-10.
But the glittery titles can highlight a lack of action. Once again, it was unclear what the conference achieved.
Somehow managing to keep a straight face, one attending UN official said, “It took us five years to define proper directions, and now the time has come to plan and to act.”
The event imitated the International Water Forum in Dushanbe in 2003, which cost international donors $4.5 million. Such funds could underwrite an entire new water supply network in an average Tajik city.
During his visit to southern Jambyl Province on June 9, Kazakh Prime Minister Karim Masimov said that authorities must protect Kazakh farmers from Kyrgyz manipulation of water supplies by constructing reservoirs in the area, downstream from Kyrgyzstan.
“If they put pressure on us, we must be on the safe side regarding water issues,” he said.