Cross-Border Water Cooperation in Central Asia: Past, Present, Future

Water is the most valuable resource on the planet. For Central Asia, this resource is an important natural and geographical factor that forms the region as a single system. The basins of the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers, historically known as the Oaks and Yaksart, played a significant role in the development of statehood in the region, determined the historical and cultural commonality of the Central Asian countries, and also influenced the characteristics of the local economy. The favorable conditions of the valleys of the foothills, floodplains and deltas of these large rivers led to the emergence of settled agriculture in the primitive period.

As in all ancient civilizations, the fields were originally cultivated using natural river floods. Over time, irrigation technologies improved. Thus, ancient Greek scholars of the time of Alexander the Great reported on the extensive network of canals and flowering gardens that existed in the central part of Asia. The creation of an irrigation infrastructure ensured a stable and rich harvest, contributed to the progress of science and culture, and influenced the worldview of the people.

The rivers of the region also played a political role, acting as a natural border between the nomads of the Great Steppe and the agricultural civilization, and our ancestors always got along well and found agreement on the issue of their joint use. Along with the growth of irrigated agriculture, the regulation of water relations also improved over time as its own traditions and rules appeared.

In this regard, the formation of the institution of mirab is remarkable. As you know, it was a multi-level system. It was headed by the supreme mirabs (a person in charge of the irrigation system and water use procedure), who were in the civil service and received salaries. They supervised the work of the main canals, were engaged in design, and carried out calculations for leveling. Local mirabs were entrusted with work with the population, including the timing and sequence of irrigation, the organization of public works for cleaning canals, repairing, and restoring irrigation facilities, etc.

Photo credit: Theglobalobservatory.org.

Mirabs were elected from among the most authoritative persons, recognized masters of their craft. Professionalism was the most important criterion, because the yield and wealth of the population depended on their skills in organizing work with irrigation systems. In addition, the cleanliness of the city canals had a beneficial effect on the sanitary-epidemic situation in the settlements. Mirabs were not just stewards of water, but also keepers of ancient customs and traditions.

During the period of tsarist rule, the traditional methods of water use transformed into modern approaches to irrigation at that time. Russia developed newly irrigated lands as well as reconstructed the old network. As a result, the thrift and hard work of local residents, the wisdom of the mirabs, together with the capital investments of interested Russian industrialists, led to the growth of cotton growing. By 1917, the Turkestan territory produced almost half of all cotton consumed at that time by factories in Russia.

During the Soviet era, the states of Central Asia took the path of more intensive use of water resources. At that time, the countries built the largest reservoirs of long-term and seasonal regulation as well as almost 100 hydroelectric facilities, a dozen long-distance main canals and thousands of hydraulic structures on the irrigation network.

This qualitatively changed the branches of the regional economy and made a significant contribution to the development of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). At the same time, the intensive use of irrigated agriculture has led to an ecological disaster. Ill-considered irrigation projects and solutions have caused the destruction of the ecosystem of the Amu Darya and Syr Darya river basins. As a result, the Aral Sea, once the fourth largest lake in the world, is forever lost. The important role of the Aral Sea, as a natural object in maintaining a sustainable ecological balance in the basin and its climate-forming significance in the region, has been lost.

The statistics show that since 1961 the area of ​​irrigated land in Central Asian countries has increased from almost 4.5 to 7 million hectares, while the total water withdrawal in the Aral Sea basin has increased from 60 to 116 cubic kilometers per year. The annual flow into the Aral Sea decreased from 55 to 10 cubic kilometers, and the area of ​​the sea itself during this time decreased almost tenfold from 69,000 to 7,000-9,000 square kilometers, while the salinity levels grew 15-20 times.

It should be noted that due to the protracted cycle of dry years in the 1980s, the situation with water supply between the Central Asian countries worsened. In 1987, the Syr Darya and Amu Darya basin administrations were created for inter-republican distribution of water resources and the operation of water intake structures and hydroelectric facilities, all under Soviet control. In order to clarify the rates of development of the economic sectors, schemes for the use of water resources in the Amu Darya and Syr Darya river basins we’re determined where the limits of water use in Central Asia were decided, which are still in use today. 

Central Asian scientific and design institutes were involved in this work, which facilitated cooperation between water specialists and the adoption of compromise decisions.

It should be noted that the Soviet planning took into consideration the threats of an inter-basin redistribution of water to the entire ecosystem of the Aral Sea and considered an inter-basin redistribution of water to prevent its shallowing. 

At the same time, a variety of solutions to this problem were studied. For example, transferring part of the flow of Siberian rivers (no more than 10 percent) was considered. The project was based on a solid scientific premise, and many scientific research organizations were involved in its development.

It was noted that almost 90 percent of the water resources of the Soviet Union were in the cold, waterlogged and sparsely populated North and East. At the same time, large-scale drainage of bogs in the northern part of the country could create a new base for the wood, chemical as well as pulp and paper industries. 

In the south of Siberia, in Kazakhstan and the rest of Central Asia, the partial inter-basin water transfer of Siberian rivers was aimed at further highly productive agriculture and animal husbandry.

The grandiose plan for the transfer of the Siberian rivers would be a repetition of the large-scale natural phenomena that have already taken place. So, according to available information, about 10,000 years ago, during the ice age, the waters of Siberian rivers, finding obstacles in the north in the form of an ice dam, rushed southward, thereby giving a powerful water recharge to the basins of the Aral Sea, the Caspian Sea and even the Black Sea through the Turan Plain. The collapse of the Soviet Union left this project on paper, and the internal waters of the once united country became transboundary.

During the Soviet time there was a clear economic mechanism for water and energy cooperation. It made it possible to develop various regimes for regulating water flow in the interests of hydropower and irrigation. Hydropower is interested in accumulating water in summer and using it in winter (during the most energy-deficient period), while irrigation, on the contrary, is associated with the accumulation of water in the winter months and its widespread use in the summer, growing season.

In practice, this was implemented in a the regional model, according to which Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan supplied energy carriers to Kyrgyz thermal power stations (TPS) to generate the required amount of electricity in winter. The Toktogul reservoir reduced production, accumulated water, and thus could perform the function of long-term regulation. In summer, the reservoir provided water for the irrigated lands of the downstream countries. The excessive electricity generated for Kyrgyzstan was consumed by Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, thereby paying off the energy resources supplied in winter.

However, at the dawn of independence in the 1990s, the Central Asian countries, for various reasons, began to revise their economic policies, which also affected the water and energy sector with its compensation mechanism. At that time, energy prices in the region rose to the level of world markets, and upstream states switched to increasing hydropower production in the winter. As a result, the previous mode of operation of the reservoirs changed from irrigation to energy.

In addition, the specifics of the distribution of water resources, which during the Soviet period were of an intrastate nature, have now acquired a transboundary subtext since the 1990s and have moved into the sphere of interstate relations. All this has imposed its own specifics on the approaches to solving this complex issue. In regulating transboundary water regimes, the Central Asian countries have gone from disputes and polarizing national positions to relative compromise and dialogue.

Since the 1990s, in the process of implementing various regional initiatives, a number of bilateral and multilateral documents have been signed in the field of joint management of water and energy resources in Central Asia. The International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea (IFAS), the Interstate Coordination for Water Commission (ICWC), the Interstate Commission on Sustainable Development (ICSD) have been created, and programs for the Aral Sea basin are being implemented.

All this has become an important factor in strengthening dialogue and cooperation between the countries of the Aral Sea basin. The international community has provided invaluable financial and technical assistance. A lot has been done. The IFAS and ICWC have successfully fulfilled their role in preventing disastrous consequences after the collapse of the unified centralized system of water resources management. 

At the same time, despite the enormous amount of work, today the activities of these regional organizations require updating in accordance with the current interests of all Central Asian countries.

In general, the delicate balance in the water and energy complex and the ecological system of our region requires a careful approach. It is important to pay attention to the strict application of the provisions of the Agreement on cooperation in the field of joint use of interstate sources and water and energy resources, as well as the norms of international conventions in the field on the use of transboundary waters.

The strategy for regulating the mode of operation of water facilities in our region should not be considered purely within the national framework and should consider the general context. This principle should become the political leitmotif of all negotiations and joint work of the Central Asian countries. 

Based on this, it is important for the states of the region to seriously realize that the construction of any water management structures and infrastructure near water bodies (for example, a nuclear power plant in the area of ​​Lake Aydarkul) should be discussed and agreed upon with neighbors. Uncalculated construction of hydroelectric power plants may have an impact on the water supply of downstream irrigated lands.

The issues of the ecological state and sustainability of water bodies must also be considered. In particular, the relatively recently formed Arnasay system of lakes and the newly created lake Altyn Asyr, which will be supported by a share of the Aral Sea. Meanwhile, the Central Asian countries have agreed to preserve the reduced but stable water area of ​​the Aral Sea, which is already considered when deciding on the size of the water area of ​​the South and North Aral Seas. It seems appropriate to apply a similar approach to the Altyn Asyr lake and the entire Arnasay system of lakes.

In regards to the joint use and protection of transboundary rivers, it is important to avoid any competition, disputes, and contradictions. Indeed, such an approach significantly limits the possibilities for sustainable development of the entire region, and all its countries separately. 

Thus, the lost profits associated with insufficiently effective cooperation are estimated by experts at US$4.5 billion per year. A stable economy should be the motivation for finding profitable trade-offs. Indeed, according to experts, there is enough water and energy in Central Asia to meet the needs of all the countries.

At the same time, while discussing the issue of joint water use in the region, one should not forget about Afghanistan. Today, from 12 to 16 billion cubic meters of water are formed on Afghan territory due to the Amu Darya River and its tributaries. Of these, Afghanistan is currently using three billion. Meanwhile, despite the difficult military-political situation, Afghanistan has a need to increase water consumption to seven billion cubic meters per year.

In addition, in the future, the situation around water will change dramatically, and demographic growth will be the driver of changes. According to United Nations (UN) estimates, by 2050 the population of the egion may exceed 93 million people, of which about 20 million will be in the Aral Sea region. This will require additional volumes of water. 

Forecasts show that by 2100, the situation may be aggravated by an increase in average annual temperatures in the Central Asian region, which may lead to a decrease in river flow.

With the future population growth in the region and the expected increase in water consumption in Central Asia, it would be pragmatic to build and consolidate a clear, coordinated, and efficient system of water resources distribution right now. Central Asian water resource management requires a rational and careful approach. 

Competition for water, commodification of water and various politicized projects around water resources will inevitably lead to an aggravation of the socio-economic situation and geopolitical tensions. This scenario is not beneficial to anyone.

The ideas and proposals of Kazakhstan’s First President Nursultan Nazarbayev voiced in August 2018 at the summit of the International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea (IFAS) can help to avoid such changes in relations between neighbors in the region. These are proposals on the development of the legal and institutional framework of IFAS, automation of the management system, distribution, and an assessment of available water resources in the Aral Sea basin, including their quality.

Considering the ongoing warming in relations between the Central Asian states, a favorable period for building mechanisms of mutually beneficial cooperation in the field of joint water resources management is possible in the region. I am glad that our neighbors have a growing understanding that a constructive solution to the issue is vital for all Central Asian countries. In the near future, the rational use of water resources and the efficient functioning of the transboundary irrigation system will determine the possibilities for economic growth in the entire region.

Kazakhstan has consistently advocated for a solution to the water and energy issues in the region. So, during the general political debates of the 75th UN General Assembly, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev proposed to create a Regional Water and Energy Consortium. The creation of a regional consortium will ensure a balance between irrigation and hydropower when using the water resources of transboundary rivers. Its activities could also forestall or mitigate the effects of energy crises associated with seasonal energy shortages in the upper reaches of the rivers.

From an economic point of view, this mechanism seems to be more pragmatic than the policy of ensuring water or energy self-sufficiency of each individual country in the region. It seems that the new regional policy for the management of water and energy resources in Central Asia should be based on the principles of solidarity and joint sustainable development.

Such a thoughtful approach will contribute to the comprehensive consideration of the interests of each state in the region for the benefit of the whole of Central Asia. It is also time to automate the system of management, distribution, accounting, and monitoring of water resources in the Aral Sea basin, including their quality. This is expected to ensure transparency in the use of water by states and strengthen mutual trust between neighbors.

The situation in our region is not unique. About 145 countries use the so-called transboundary water basins together with their neighbors, and the territories of 21 states are completely included in international basins. There are many compromise solutions and models that make it possible to coordinate a complex field of economic, political, social, and environmental interests. The most important thing is the will to dialogue and the desire to cooperate with neighbors.

In conclusion, I would like to note that the people of our region for many centuries had an understandable system of coordinated use of water. And it is important for us, their descendants, to rebuild trusting relationships and recreate the mechanisms of water resources management in Central Asia today. Sustainable prosperity and growth of the economies of all Central Asian countries depend on the coordination of actions and mutual support in the formation of the architecture of the water and energy management of the region.

And, now, we have a good historical chance to open a new page of good-neighborly joint development.

The author is Aiymdos Bozzhigitov, the Chairman of the Board of Foreign Policy Research Institute of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Kazakhstan, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary, PhD in Engineering Science.

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