As an extremely hot summer comes to Europe, coupled with painful mutual embargos between the EU and Russia, Kazakhstan and its Central Asian neighbors provide an example of a mutually advantageous, responsible exchange of natural resources, water in the first place. Kazakhstan is providing neighboring states with electric energy and hydro carburants. In exchange, Kazakhstan gets the surplus water from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Somehow, despite rare setbacks, the Central Asian states agreed a while ago not to use preferential access to water or energy as a political weapon. This is a rare achievement, which the region can pride itself of, especially in today’s world, where mutual accusations of using energy (water, nuclear fuel, and other sources) as a weapon have become commonplace.
How was this success achieved and maintained? Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, for instance, speaking at the general political debate of the 75th General Assembly, has shown the way forward. The President proposed to create a Regional Water and Energy Consortium. So far, the creation of such a consortium is still in the works, but by its policy in recent years Kazakhstan is already drawing the contours of a system, which will resolve the “one thousand years old” problem of water shortage in Central Asia.
The foundation of the solution is the wise use of traditional resources – the ancient transboundary rivers Syr Darya (it flows through territory of both Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan) and Amu Darya (flows through neighboring Uzbekistan’s territory). With Kyrgyzstan, the transboundary rivers are Shu and Talas. Also, Kazakhstan uses the waters from Toktogul water reservoir in Kyrgyzstan and from the Soviet-era Shardara reservoir in Uzbekistan. In exchange, Kazakhstan provides electric energy and fuel for farmers’ trucks.
Speaking at a government meeting in the end of May, Kazakh Ecology, Geology and Natural Resources Minister Serikkali Brekeshev explained that the exchange of water and energy resources became possible only thanks to trilateral agreements between Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, because the borders of the three countries are located very close to each other precisely in the water-supplying areas. The need to distribute waters from there among Kazakhstan’s immense agricultural lands is a difficult task, which every year requires Herculean efforts from both the government and the population at large.
What can be said right now is the following: in 2022, the Kazakh farmers will not be left without water, and in this sphere a huge contribution was made by cross-border cooperation. In June, a trilateral agreement was signed between Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan in the Tajik capital Dushanbe, allowing the delivery of 3.9 billion cubic meters of water to the Shardara reservoir, which will be used by both Uzbek and Kazakh farmers. This is a real Godsend for the farmers of Turkistan and Kyzylorda regions.
Historically, the countries of Central Asia were left with a controversial legacy by the Soviet Union. On the one hand, huge industrial heritage and one of the largest irrigation systems in the world. On the other hand, the ecological disasters, such as the drying Aral sea. In most of the cases, it was not a deliberate wrongdoing, but unforeseen consequences of projects built with good intentions.
In his speeches, President Tokayev set the aim for this cross-border cooperation: the creation of a balance between irrigation and hydropower, the optimal use of the water resources of transboundary rivers. Kazakhstan’s energy resources and the water wealth of its neighbors should not be “decoupled” (a fashionable word now, unfortunately) but rather combined for the good of all of Central Asia.
It is an important part of the future of a sustainable, ecologically driven economy that Kazakhstan is building on its land. An economy that would combine modern industry with environment-friendly agriculture. An economy, where the advantages of ancient wisdom, modern democracy and robust industrial development work together.
The author is Dmitry Babich, a Moscow-based journalist with 30 years of experience of covering global politics, a frequent guest on BBC, Al Jazeera and RT