Resolving Water Issues Requires Cooperation Between Central Asian States, Experts Say

ASTANA — Over the past few years, the water supply issue for agricultural needs in Central Asia has become acute. In July, water scarcity hit Kazakhstan’s Zhambyl Region, which borders the Kyrgyz Republic, prompting farmers to seek help resolving the issue. Representatives of the countries met in Bishkek, the capital of the Kyrgyz Republic, the same month to discuss the allocation of water along the Chu and Talas rivers. However, water scarcity persisted in August. In its latest analytical piece, Kazinform outlines the problem and provides expert opinions on resolving the issue between the two countries.

All water facilities that regulate river flow to Kazakhstan are located in Kyrgyz territory. Photo credit: Pixabay. Click to see the map in full size. The map is designed by The Astana Times.

Joint use of transboundary rivers between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyz Republic

The largest transboundary water arteries of Central Asia, the rivers Amu-Darya, Syr-Darya, Talas, Tarim, Chu, and Karkara are formed on the Kyrgyz territory and provide water to Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and China. Most of the water supply to the Zhambyl Region is provided by the transboundary rivers Chu and Talas, originating in the Kyrgyz Republic. 

Crops in the Zhambyl Region, which borders the Kyrgyz Republic, encountered water scarcity in July, prompting farmers to seek aid in resolving the issue. Photo credit: Kazakh Ministry of Agriculture.

The intergovernmental agreement, signed on Jan. 21, 2000, regulates water relations between the two countries using interstate water infrastructure on the Chu and Talas rivers. The Chu-Talas water commission was established, a joint body responsible for developing an agreed-upon process for interstate water facilities and estimating the operating costs required to ensure their secure and stable operation.

The transboundary waters between Kazakhstan and the Kyrgyz Republic are distributed according to a ratio. Along the Chu River, Kazakhstan – 0.11 cubic kilometers (3%), and the Kyrgyz Republic – 3.84 cubic kilometers (97%). Along the Talas River,  Kazakhstan – 0.11 (6%) and the Kyrgyz Republic – 1.72 cubic kilometers (94%). 

Along the Karkara River, Kazakhstan – 0.23 (38%) and the Kyrgyz Republic – 0.37 cubic kilometers (62%), respectively. The water resources of these rivers are divided between Kazakhstan and the Kyrgyz Republic in percentage terms: the Talas River – 50/50, the Chu River – 42/58.

All water facilities regulating river flow to the Kazakh side are in the Kyrgyz territory. 

Before the start of the planting season, the water commission, represented by the co-chairs of the two countries, develops and signs water withdrawal schedules under which water is shared with Kazakhstan.

The Zhambyl Region’s water supply issue

The Kyrgyz Ministry of Agriculture announced on Aug. 13 that the Kyrgyz Republic has stopped supplying irrigation water to Kazakhstan. The Kyrgyz side explained that this was a stopgap measure due to the country’s own challenging situation with water it had to save for its own agricultural needs. 

Kazakh Agriculture Minister Yerbol Karashukeev met with farmers from the drought-affected parts of the Zhambyl Region on Aug. 12. He assured the government would support farmers by declaring a state of emergency and allocating funds from the government’s reserve.

According to a statement issued by the Kazakh Ministry of Ecology and Natural Resources on Aug. 16, the halt of water delivery from the Kyrgyz Republic affected nearly 560 hectares of agricultural land in Kazakhstan, depending on the Talas River. The Kyrgyz Republic supplied water to Kazakhstan from the Kirov reservoir at the speed of 45 cubic meters per second until Aug. 1. 

“Some 30 cubic meters per second was provided to the Talas dam. Even such water volume allowed crop preservation on nearly 26,000 hectares in the Baizak, Zhambyl, and Talas districts of the Zhambyl Region. At the moment, irrigation occurs by cleaning the drainage carried out on the Kyrgyz territory along the state border by the Zhambyl branch of the Kazvodkhoz State Enterprise. These procedures reduced crop losses, and the remaining flow is now provided to the targeted areas using a water circulation system,” reads the ministry’s statement.

According to the ministry, a similar approach was used in 2021 when the Kyrgyz side met its obligations to supply water on a live runoff basis. As a result, Kazakhstan suffered no substantial crop losses that year. 

Factors causing water scarcity

According to experts, climate change, depreciation of infrastructure, irrational and inefficient use of water resources are the primary factors causing the water crisis in Central Asia. 

The World Bank estimates show that the average temperature in the southern region of Central Asia has climbed by 0.5 Celsius degrees since the middle of the 20th century and by 1.6 Celsius degrees in the north, causing glaciers to melt and water reservoirs to deplete. 

The extent of glaciers in Central Asia has declined by one-third since the turn of the century. Experts note that the rapid melting of the Tien Shan and Pamir-Alay glaciers will severely reduce the amount of water in the region in the near future. Climate change also contributes to the decline of water used for drinking and agriculture.

The Kyrgyz Republic had a severe water shortage in the capital and throughout the region in the early summer of this year. Local officials used water-saving measures to preserve reserves by closing water-intensive facilities such as private baths, car washes, and swimming pools. According to the Kyrgyz Ministry of Agriculture, a challenging situation with a lack of irrigation water has also developed in the Chu and Talas Regions.

A similar situation is currently being observed in southern Kazakhstan. Farmers in the Zhambyl Region’s Baizak, Talas, and partially Zhambyl districts face a severe irrigation water deficit. Approximately 4,000 hectares of onion and sugar beet crops are at risk due to a lack of water from the Kirov Reservoir. 

According to the Kazakh ecology ministry, the volume of the Kirov reservoir in the Talas River basin as of Aug. 9 this year was 32.48 million cubic meters, which is 144.8 million less than during the same period last year (177.28 million cubic meters). In turn, the Kyrgyz agriculture ministry explained the decrease in water supplies caused by the Talas Valley’s poor water sources owing to climate change. The water flow in the Kirov reservoir is barely 1.0 cubic meters per second (in 2022, it was 13.7), with no rise in inflow recorded.

Despite having abundant water resources, the Kyrgyz Republic has challenges in utilizing them. The misuse of drinking water by residents in the summer for watering vegetable gardens results in consumption exceeding specified norms, putting pressure on water delivery infrastructure.

According to experts at the Kyrgyz Republic’s National Institute for Strategic Studies, most of the country’s water is lost during use. The cause of the losses is the poor technical condition of the irrigation and water distribution systems, equipment wear and tear, and the adoption of ineffective irrigation methods. According to expert estimates, the current state of the country’s water management infrastructure leaves much to be desired. 

According to Almaz Sokeyev, director of the Kyrgyz Republic’s Water Resources Service, climate change affects agriculture in the country. He said the country had implemented reforms in the water sector. Irrigation system deterioration causes enormous water volumes to be lost during irrigation. As a result, irrigation canals are being constructed to prevent water losses. As an upstream country, the Kyrgyz Republic aims to continue working with downstream countries Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan to repair the common water infrastructure.

Ways to solve the water issue 

The importance of water resources increases every year. Addressing the region’s water supply problem requires an integrated and unified approach from the entire region. Central Asia’s water problem necessitates the creation and execution of agreed-upon action plans that embody the principles of equitable and efficient use of water resources. 

Ernest Karybekov, chair of the Institute for the Study of Water Use and Water Energy Resources of Central Asia, said that water is the Kyrgyz Republic’s greatest value, therefore, it should prioritize its efficient management. In this context, Kyrgyz state bodies must employ a systematic approach based on scientific data.

In turn, Zhanybek Kulumbetov, a resource efficiency specialist at the Kyrgyz Unison Group Public Foundation, said it is critical to develop and apply water-saving technologies to respond to water scarcity. Drip irrigation, where water is provided directly to the root system of plants, should be used as much as possible for agricultural land irrigation. The plants obtain the necessary hydration while significantly saving water.

To overcome the water issue and ensure regional peace and food security, all Central Asian countries should cooperate at all levels to enhance water usage efficiency, modernize irrigation systems, and introduce modern irrigation technologies.

Kazakh political scientist Daniyar Ashimbaev echoed this opinion, saying that the country needs more strategic planning in water pipes, climate projections, and long-term solutions with the Kyrgyz Republic. 

“We need a long-term strategic agreement with Bishkek, which neither side agrees to currently. Therefore, I do not foresee a quick solution to this problem soon,” he said.

He proposed that it is critical to consider establishing a separate water management body with skilled specialists. 

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