EU Seeks to Empower Central Asia’s Sustainable Water and Energy Future

ASTANA – Assisting the countries in Central Asia to promote efficient water and energy management is one of the key missions of the new Team Europe Initiative on Water, Energy and Climate Change for Central Asia presented by the European Union in 2021. Johannes Baur, Head of Сooperation at the EU Delegation to Kazakhstan, spoke to The Astana Times about the challenges facing Central Asia and the program’s role in addressing them.

Johannes Baur. Photo credit: The Astana Times.

Central Asia, a region with inextricably linked water and energy systems, is known for its vast natural resources, including rivers, lakes, and mountains. However, these resources are not always used in a sustainable way. Multiple transboundary rivers and a complex system of energy interdependence inherited from the Soviet Union make managing these resources challenging.

One of the programs is the Central Asia Water and Energy Program (CAWEP), launched in 2009 by the World Bank, the European Union, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom. CAWEP is managed by the World Bank and seeks to promote regional energy and water security cooperation by strengthening institutional capacities and to facilitate dialogue among Central Asian governments to ensure an enabling environment for achieving national and regional energy and water security.

The program’s relevance is growing due to the increasingly evident impact of climate change, which is forecasted to have significant consequences for Central Asia. Launched in 2009, the program entails three phases. Phase 1 ran until June 2013, phase 2 – until December 2017, and phase 3 was recently extended until November 2023.

The total budget for the program since 2009 has reached 21.9 million euros ($23.9 million), with an EU contribution of eight million euros ($8.7 million) for phases 2 and 3.

The program has focused on achieving results in several areas – data and diagnostic analysis, institutions, capacity and dialogue, and investment support.

“In fact, the EU has supported a number of different programs in the energy and water sectors in Central Asia,” said Baur.

 “We have different sectoral activities. Regarding water, we are helping some countries to increase the use of hydropower. We are also looking at bigger power plants, for example, in Tajikistan. We are trying to help the local population to have better access to water and to have better use of water. We are doing this through technical assistance – advising municipalities and governments, and increasingly through investments by European banks, including the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, which is already very active. We also hope that the European Investment Bank, which is the biggest European bank, will become more active in Central Asia and could also finance such projects,” said the diplomat.

Promoting renewable energy in the region is also part of the Team Europe initiative. Central Asia has a significant potential for developing renewable energy due to its abundant solar, wind, and hydro resources. It faces critical challenges, including a need for more investment, infrastructure, expertise, and regulatory barriers.

“We are also looking at promoting renewable energy, not only by constructing or supporting the construction of renewable energy, solar plants, and wind plants but also by preparing the conditions for renewables in the grid, because this also requires a complete change in the management of the grid. This can be supported through technical assistance,” he said.

Challenges facing the region

According to Johannes Baur, all countries in the region are very different and at varied “starting points.”

“Kazakhstan, for example, is significantly developed in many aspects. It has an ambitious strategy to achieve carbon neutrality. But, of course, it also has a specific challenge to move away from traditional fossil fuels, particularly coal, which will be a huge task. In Europe, we have a lot of experience moving away from coal, including toward renewables. The biggest challenge is probably to raise awareness not just among the population, but also among the decision makers,” he said, noting that Uzbekistan also relies on fossil fuels, although it is less dependent on coal and more on gas.

Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, in turn, have extensive hydro resources. Over 90 percent of their electricity is generated from hydropower.

“But these countries have the challenge to connect remote areas with electricity. They have fewer resources. They have a different starting point,” he said. “Turkmenistan is also heavily relying on fossil fuels. The country is only slowly opening up after being closed during the Covid-19 pandemic. And we have fewer activities there in comparison to the other Central Asian countries.”

He reaffirmed that the EU is ready to offer expertise in transitioning to a greener economy. He underlined the importance in this regard of the Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (EPCA) between Kazakhstan and the EU, which entered into force in 2020.

“Energy, water, green issues, and establishing a green economy are also an important part of the EPCA, and we want to support this through a new bilateral cooperation facility. For that, we still need to sign a financing agreement with the government,” said Baur.

However, transitioning to a green economy is also increasingly required for those economic sectors that want to receive global financing or export CO2-intensive goods to the EU.

In the EU, a new Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (CBAM) has just been agreed upon. The mechanism, which is expected to be launched in October, aims to ensure that the price of goods imported into the EU reflects their carbon footprint and would apply to particular goods that are high in carbon emissions.

“A lot of countries, not only the EU, but also the United States, Japan, and Korea, are making this transition, and they will require imports to become climate neutral and to be greener. This means that the Kazakh industry in the long run will benefit from changing to greener products. The EU will soon introduce this carbon border adjustment tax that will be applied to products like aluminum, steel, and hydrogen. If Kazakhstan wants to export these goods to the European Union and not be subject to the tax, it should start to green these products,” said Baur.

Increased women’s participation and role of civil society

Baur also underlined the importance of involving women in water management, noting that women will significantly benefit from water and energy security.

“In very remote and less developed regions in Central Asia, domestic energy and domestic water use is very often a woman’s task. Facilitating access to water and electricity may increase the opportunities for better education for everybody and in particular for girls and women,” said Baur. “In Europe we also try to increase the share of women in the management of energy and water companies. So we could envisage an objective as part of the program to better integrate the role of women into the management of these resources.”

Raising public awareness is also critical to addressing water and energy problems, and civil society plays a crucial role here.

“Civil society plays a very important role, particularly in raising awareness and in setting the direction of decisions at the local, regional or even national levels. They should contribute to a national dialogue on the development of policies,” he said.

Everything should start from an early age, Johannes suggested. “I think it is useful to start with children, with education and schools and universities. That’s also how it was done in Europe. So it would be laudable  that this becomes part of the national curriculum and that awareness campaigns may be done in schools,” said Baur.

The EU plans to organize sustainable energy and climate days in Kazakhstan and other Central Asian countries.

“These events are already very popular in Europe. They raise awareness in cities on what can be done by every citizen to save energy and water, and also to transition to renewable energy sources, which in the long term will be much cheaper and cleaner for everyone,” he explained.

Baur also stressed the importance of a good national legislation framework. 

“I think cities, villages, and communities have to play an important role because a lot can be done by changing to sustainable transportation and changing heating systems. For example in Almaty, a first step will be to at least change the heating system from coal to gas. We have seen this winter in Ekibastuz that something has to change [referring to the power plant crash that left city residents without heating]. Europe has a lot of experience valuable for Kazakhstan, including in colder countries like Sweden or Finland which have a very high percentage of renewables in the heating sector, which shows that it is possible to establish a heating system based on renewables, such as renewable electricity and biomass,” he said. 

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