Countries of Central Asia deserve reparations from Russia and international community for damage to water resources during the Soviet times, U.S. scholar says

As a legal heir to the former Soviet Union, Russia should feel responsible for the serious damage to the water resources in Central Asia inflicted by huge irrigation projects during the Soviet era, according to a renowned U.S. expert on the region, reported Silk Road Newsline.

“When a huge amount of damage is done by one country to another, the normal thing to talk about is some form of reparations,” Dr. Frederick Starr, Chairman of the Central Asia – Caucasus Institute at the Johns Hopkins University, told an expert panel in Washington titled “Water management in Central Asia: Challenges and Opportunities.”

“The Soviet Union is no more, but the Russian Federation became its legal heir and I think a striking thing here is the absence of any sense of responsibility on the Russian side for what it did to this region. We can debate — Uzbeks, Tajiks, Kyrgyz, Turkmen, Afghans — till the end of time but they all are dealing with the problem they did not create,” he said.

Starr stressed that neither Russia nor any of the other world powers or international organizations made any serious efforts to help countries of Central Asia overcome the legacy of the Soviet-era irrigation mega-projects.

“There has never been a serious discussion of how, for example, to put some kind of lining on the bottom of the Kara-Kum Canal. In other words, to correct this monster problem which is causing all these tensions within the region,” he said, referring to the seepage of up to 25 percent of water from the unsealed bed and sides of the Kara-Kum Canal, one of the largest irrigation and water supply canals in the world built between 1954 and 1988 and considered by many international experts as a major factor leading to the Aral Sea environmental disaster. Some estimates show that as much as 45 percent of the Amu-Darya water entering the Kara-Kum Canal is lost to evaporation and seepage.

“It seems to me the world community has done a miserable job,” Starr said. “This is a problem of a scale that warrants a huge international investment just in the form, if you will, of reparations of the damage that was inflicted.”

Central Asia, Starr reminded, was the cradle of several very advanced ancient civilizations that mastered the art of irrigation many centuries ago before their achievements were ruined by waves of invaders.

“I am not the first to say this but it is absolutely clear on the basis of the last half century’s archaeological work that Central Asians actually developed the first and most serious, technologically most sophisticated irrigation systems in the world. They are not amateurs,” he stressed. “You can say what a tragedy. You know, the Mongols actually went at, in a focused way, very strategically, they went at the irrigation systems and many of them never recovered from the Mongol invasion, but what did recover was basically obliterated by the Soviet Union with its system which is among the most primitive in the world.”

In his presentation at the panel, Elbek Saidov, a visiting scientist from Uzbekistan and a UNESCO Fellow at the Johns Hopkins University, noted that current water problems in Central Asia are rooted in the centralized and extensive approach to irrigation imposed on the region during the Soviet period.

“The water scarcity in the region is not related to lack of water resources but it is a result of mismanagement and supply driven approach,” Saidov said in his report adding that countries of Central Asia “lack financial and technological resources” to overcome that costly legacy on their own.

“According to the World Bank and UNESCO early estimates, the renovation of the irrigation and drainage systems require about 3 to 4 thousand U.S. dollars per hectare of land,” he said.

“Water issue is related to the security of Central Asia and considered by many Central Asian countries as a security issue and it has very diverse implications in the development of the region. So, mainly it is the economic side of the issue. For example, according to assessments, up to 2 billion dollars are lost by the countries due to water problems. This side of the problem, related to the Soviet irrigation system, needs to be upgraded,” Saidov told Silk Road Newsline in an interview.
Central Asian News