Contradictions between Central Asian states on the use of water resources

Management of water resources in Central Asia and water disputes

Written by Evgeniy Volkov

The contradiction aggravation between the states of the Central Asian region on the equitable use of water resources in trans boundary rivers can be used by international and regional players to achieve their goals.
In connection with global climate change in recent years the intensity of glacier melt in Kyrgyzstan has been steadily increasing. At the same time in the republic there are about 45% of all glaciers in Central Asia, which are one of the main sources of nutrition in the river system of the region. Glaciers and snowfields occupy about 4% of the country’s territory and they are getting smaller with a total area of about 8,000 square kilometers.

According to the latest National Report of Kyrgyzstan (2017) on the environment the total volume of the glacial mass was reduced by about 25% over a few decades. As the experts noted if the trend remains the same the 50% of glaciers may disappear in the republic by 2050.

In particular according to specialists’ analysis the Petrov glacier is melting fastest located in the Central Tien Shan near the Kumtor gold deposit (annually the glacier retreats 57 meters from its previous borders). In turn located on the northern slope of the Kyrgyz ridge glacier “Adygine” during the same time increased the melting rate by 22 meters per year (annually retreats by 26 meters). The Chaktal Glacier annually retreats by 19.5 meters located on the northern coast of Issyk-Kul and the Kara-Batkak glacier loses 5.3 meters per year of the total area, which is located on the northern slope of the Teskey Ala-Too ridge.

At the same time according to the experts of the CIS countries in Kyrgyzstan there is no real threat of a sharp decline in the high water levels of the rivers that feed the glaciers. However there is a tendency to change the regime of river saturation, that is when the farmland will need irrigation there will be a drought in the country and vice versa. When this is not necessary, the rivers will be deep. This is due to the fact that in summer the electricity generated by the hydropower plant is consumed less than in the winter so Kyrgyzstan implements savings on water discharges accumulating it in reservoirs.

At the same time experts note that in Kyrgyzstan the problem of melting glaciers and their condition is not handled and monitored by any agency. Glaciers remain unattended and not to be considered as natural resources. Therefore it is impossible to make a real picture of the problem at present although fresh water will be very expensive in the near future.

In this context it should be noted that the problem of using water and energy resources is very relevant. Since independence of the Central Asian states 12 rivers, 8 reservoirs, 16 large collectors, 4 water intake facilities, 8 large stations and more than 60 small rivers and irrigation channels have been located on the borders of Central Asian countries and have become trans boundary. The main part 75.2% of the flow of water resources is formed in the territories of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, 15.2% in Uzbekistan, 5% in Turkmenistan and 4.6% in Kazakhstan.

The problem lies in the fact that almost all the water used is taken from two main rivers the Syr Darya and the Amu Darya and most of the hydro technical structures erected on rivers were originally designed as inter-republican objects. At the moment they continue to perform their functions in the interests of several states but for almost 20 years they have been kept at the expense of the countries-owners. Syrdarya flows from Kyrgyzstan through Tajikistan to Uzbekistan (through the densely populated Fergana Valley) and Kazakhstan and the Amu Darya flows from Tajikistan to Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

Thus “lower” countries as Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan are in water dependence on the “upper” countries. More than 90% of water comes to Turkmenistan from outside, to Uzbekistan 77%, to Kazakhstan more than 40%.
Without developed industry and agriculture but a powerful water potential Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan plan to use water at their own discretion. Bishkek and Dushanbe unilaterally changed the operating mode of their reservoirs and began planning the construction of new hydroelectric power stations.

At the same time Uzbekistan is against the above plans which receives a significant portion of GDP from cotton and is interested in increasing the acreage. However during the visit of the President of Kyrgyzstan A. Atambayev to Uzbekistan on October 5-6 of this year an agreement was reached with JSC “Uzbekhydroenergo” on cooperation in the implementation of the construction of Kambarata HPP-1 and on the interstate use of the Orto-Tokoy (Kasansay) reservoir in the Ala-Buka district of Jalal-Abad Region.

Despite the current conflict situation in the relations between the countries of the region on the water and energy problem Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have agreements with Russia on the construction of Kambaratinskaya HPP-1, the Verkhne-Narynsky cascade of HPPs and the Rogun HPP. Also Kyrgyzstan has agreements with the Czech company “Liglass Trading sr.o” for the construction of the Tokhtagul HPP.

At the moment the construction is frozen in connection with the failure to fulfill obligations of both parties. It should be noted that during the visit to Russia Prime Minister of Kyrgyzstan S.Isakov said that the Kyrgyz party is ready to fulfill its obligations in respect to paying off the debt for the construction of the Verkhne-Narynsky cascade HPPs after involving new investors in its construction. In October of this year the government of Kyrgyzstan stated that the major investment companies of the PRC and India show interest in the construction of the Verkhne-Narynsky cascade of HPPs. Also the Kyrgyz government announced its decision not to return a guarantee contribution to the Czech company in the amount of 1 million 147 thousand US dollars.

Official Bishkek continues to consider it necessary of the water issue in direct connection with the energy as providing the population with electricity and heat through the work of hydroelectric power stations is a vital condition as well as providing water for agricultural needs of downstream countries. The existing shortage of energy resources in the country makes it more profitable for Kyrgyzstan to discharge water in reservoirs (built mainly for the irrigation purposes of neighboring countries) in winter when the volume of electricity consumption in the republic increases significantly.

Because of unsanctioned releases of water between neighbors there are constant conflicts. So in winter period the Toktogul reservoir accumulates water, which goes for irrigation to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan and the republic takes 7% of its needs. However unplanned water discharges by the Kyrgyz party at this time turn around for neighbors flooding populated areas and farmland. Under these conditions the forced reduction in electricity generation by Kyrgyzstan is detrimental to the economy and the interests of the population through the reduction of water releases through turbines.

At the same time for several years the Kyrgyz government has been trying to interpret water as a type of commodity and it expects to get rid of energy dependence from the Kazakh party in the long term and to start exporting electricity to Iran, Pakistan and India (approximately in the amount of up to 10 billion kWh per year).

Thus water becomes the subject of political trade between the countries of the region and is actively used as a lever of pressure in upholding and advancing national interests. Therefore there is a need for a coordinated scheme for water resources management in Central Asia taking into account energy, agricultural and other socio-economic needs and the interests of all states in the region require the development of new cooperation mechanisms. The presence of powerful hydropower facilities made necessary to search for a compromise between the interests of hydropower and irrigation in the upper reaches and large areas of irrigated land in the basins of large rivers in the region.

The unresolved problems of water resources increase the inter-state contradictions between neighbors every year. This can be used by the countries of the west and some Islamic countries in their geostrategic interests.
In this connection Kazakhstan should consider the possibility of concession participation in the construction of water and energy facilities on the territory of Kyrgyzstan (thus Astana will have the opportunity to monitor the ongoing processes in this area and to respond in a timely manner to their changes). At the same time it should be noted that the Kyrgyz government is offering certain investment projects to the Kazakh party and separately discusses with Turkey, Russia, China and other partners.

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