Oxford Researcher Suggests Measures to Address Central Asia’s Water Crisis  

ASTANA – Water scarcity in Central Asia poses a persistent threat to the socio-economic progress of the region, with climate change exacerbating its vulnerability. In an interview with The Astana Times, Genevieve Donnellon-May, a geopolitical and global strategy advisor specializing in regional resource governance and environmental conflict in Asia, proposed a set of measures both at national and regional levels aimed at addressing the growing water crisis in the region.    

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After the collapse of the Soviet Union, water management has caused disputes in Central Asia due to conflicting needs between the water-rich upstream (the Kyrgyz Republic and Tajikistan) and the fossil-fuel rich downstream countries (Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan). The transformation of water from a potential source of conflict into a strong instrument of cooperation and peace is now a priority for the five countries.  

Genevieve Donnellon-May.

“Competing water uses for agricultural and industrial purposes across the region place even greater pressure on shared water resources. Despite simmering regional challenges and the flaring up of bilateral tensions amid global geopolitical shifts, water security concerns offer a chance for riparian countries to seek cooperation over conflict,” she said. 

Donnellon-May is a researcher at the Oxford Global Society, a U.K.-based independent, non-partisan think tank, and the Asia-Pacific analyst at The Red Line podcast.  

The primary water sources in Central Asia, the Syr Darya and the Amu Darya rivers account for 90% of the river water in the region and 75% of water utilized in irrigated agriculture. These rivers are managed by the two upstream states, the Kyrgyz Republic and Tajikistan. Both countries view the construction of hydroelectric dams as a crucial means to fulfill their energy needs.   

“For governments and policymakers, it becomes harder to make informed, long-term decisions regarding transnational river basins, inadvertently fueling water-related inter and intra-state conflicts concerns,” she added. 

Domestic measures 

On a national level, countries should implement water demand management measures, said the expert. Donnellon-May presented four types of incentives – technologies to address water losses, economic instruments, non-price mechanisms, and alternative water supply systems.  

“These include addressing water losses through the technology usage for leak detection and repairs, implementation of programs aimed to identify, remove, and replace illegal connections; economic instruments – rebates or incentive schemes for consumption reduction through water bills, a tariff structure with adequate subsidies for lower income earners; non-price mechanisms, like household consumption guidelines, the use of water efficiency appliances, public education campaigns on saving water; and alternative water supply systems, for example, a harvested rainwater, desalination, and treated wastewater for both drinking and non-drinking purposes,” she said.  

Speaking about alternative water supply systems, the expert noted that some Asian countries, such as Singapore and Australia, have already undertaken steps to improve their water security through diversification. In this regard, these states can “share best practices and knowledge with Central Asian countries and vice versa.” 

Hydro-diplomacy in Central Asia

“Regionally, while neither basin-wide treaties nor river basin organizations may appear at this stage, there are measures that countries can undertake to improve this situation, simultaneously reducing rising geopolitical tensions,” she said. 

The exchange of hydrological data in real-time is a key consideration in terms of raising awareness of upstream and downstream developments in river basin countries, according to her. 

“It enables timely responses to water-related challenges, such as droughts, flooding, and water pollution. Other measures include joint monitoring of shared rivers and lakes, biannual water forums, regular discussions of planned and proposed hydro-engineering projects, and conferences on river basin management,” said Donnellon-May. 

Relevant stakeholders, particularly local communities, governments, researchers, and scientists should attend all the events related to the aforementioned measures, to “ensure that all parties have a voice when it comes to shared water governance.”  

“Despite the lack of basin-wide institutionalized cooperation along with China’s mistrust of basin-wide multilateral organizations, China can lead by establishing research initiatives with think tanks, scientists, researchers and their counterparts in the downstream countries to discuss scientific, environmental and technical concerns. This could create a basin-wide platform to discuss shared water challenges and solutions,” she said. 

For downstream nations, these developments could open avenues to voice concerns and promote increased cooperation, including multilateral discussions. This could potentially lead to the establishment of a shared framework for river management, offering collective benefits to all countries.

In its report last year, the Eurasian Development Bank (EDB) recommended the region establish the International Water and Energy Consortium of Central Asia, focusing on irrigation and energy projects.

Donnellon-May emphasized a “greater awareness of water and water-related challenges, as well as the interest in solving them.” As a case in point, she brought an example of the One Water Summit scheduled for September 2024, which will be held on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in New York. Co-chaired by France and Kazakhstan, the summit will review a multi-actor approach to international water cooperation. 

Green energy and opportunities for nuclear power generation in Kazakhstan 

Kazakhstan continues to introduce greener solutions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and increase the use of renewables. 

“While the country produces over 70% of its electricity from its abundant resources of coal, it aims to supply half of its power by 2050 through other sources. The government seeks to reduce Kazakhstan’s greenhouse gas emissions to 15% by 2030 and reach carbon neutrality by 2060,” said the expert. 

These goals, Donnellon-May noted, require overcoming the economy’s dependence on cheap domestic coal, addressing high financing costs, low electricity tariffs, and the absence of flexible generating capacity.

The data from the International Energy Agency (IEA) indicates that nuclear power accounts for around 10% of electricity generation globally, rising to almost 20% in advanced economies. 

“Kazakhstan, which possesses the world’s second-largest uranium reserves, accounting for 14% of the global total, has significant potential to develop its own nuclear power generation. The consistent and reliable source of baseload electricity from nuclear energy could go hand in hand with renewable energy sources in helping Kazakhstan achieve its energy goals,” she said. 

At the same time, the expert underscored the need to pay special attention to public concerns, including projected high water consumption for cooling, “which could exacerbate water stress or scarcity, environmental and ecological concerns, and overall costs of a nuclear power plant.” 

Food security in Kazakhstan

“In recent years, global conflicts, supply chain disruptions, climate change impacts, and the COVID-19 pandemic, have caused fluctuations of food supplies in both availability and prices in global markets, especially for grains and edible oils – the backbone of food security,” said Donnellon-May.

Kazakhstan is the ninth largest country in terms of landmass with 74% of its territory suitable for agriculture. To meet the demands of a burgeoning global population, major agricultural producers like Kazakhstan will face increasing pressure, as global food production is required to rise by 60-70% by 2050.  

“Future demographics and the rising middle classes in Asia and Africa, alongside concomitant growing food demands, including for more expensive and diverse food like meat, dairy, sugar, and edible oils mean that there is increasing pressure on global agrifood systems to meet demand,” she said. 

From her perspective, as a regional economic powerhouse with strategic importance, Kazakhstan has the potential to develop the agri-food sector and increase its exports to the Middle East, Europe, and the rest of Asia. 

“In addition to increasing the production and exports of wheat, Kazakhstan’s largest crop by acreage accounting for 80% of grain production, the country could also increase its production and exports of soybeans, barley, corn, rice, flax seeds, sunflower seeds, sugar, vegetables, and fertilizers,” she noted.  

Donnellon-May stressed the country’s capacities for the production growth of fats and oils, which have a “very high added value level, as well as flour products, high-protein feeds, and also food processing and manufacturing.”

Government policies are the blueprint for the diversification of crop areas and subsidy assistance for the cultivation of crops and oil seeds, as well as for food processing. 

“Furthermore, discussions and forums could be organized by national and regional governments, as well as by chambers of commerce to attract foreign direct investment (FDI) in Kazakhstan’s agricultural sector and to encourage the establishment of joint and cross-border agricultural projects between foreign and local agribusinesses,” she said.   

Despite emerging opportunities, the implementation of agricultural projects faces a raft of challenges amid a fractured geopolitical environment. Notably, water scarcity stands out as a major one.

“Agricultural irrigation is responsible for as much as 70% of water consumption, making agriculture an incredibly water-intensive sector. To address this, farmers could use water-saving technologies and techniques, such as drip irrigation, to help reduce water consumption and ensure that it is used more efficiently and sustainably,” said Donnellon-May. 

On Jan. 29, Kazakhstan joined the Convention on the Law of Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses, known as the United Nations (UN) Watercourses Convention, which creates mechanisms for resolving possible disputes over water allocation and interstate cooperation for the development of water resources. 

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