Way to solve the problem

By Arthur Dunn

It is widely known that energy sources such as oil and gas are considered as the main strategic resources. Countries possessing them are able to exert significant influence on the global economy and international politics. Meanwhile, it is clear that a key role in the Central Asian region will belong to water resource and their ownership in the near future.

Current global demand for water, being the highest ever, continues to grow. Consumption of fresh water has tripled over the past half century while the irrigated area has doubled during this period. Population growth leads to higher demand for agricultural products and, consequently, to increasing demand for water. Being responsible for 70% of the total water use agriculture is the largest water consumer so far. Agricultural water demand is forecasted to increase by 70-90% by 2050 provided there is no further improvement in water management.

The considered region is one of the most "problematic" areas. According to the World Resources Institute total fresh water reserves in Central Asia account for 293 billion m3 per year or 6100 m3 per capita. It should be noted, the problem of access to water is particularly acute for Kazakhstan, as the country has one of the lowest available water supply indicator in the CIS region. Today, the specific water availability of the country is about 37,000 m3 per 1 km2 and 6000 m3 per person per year.

The situation is exacerbated by the fact that water resources of Kazakhstan are steadily declining. This happens because there are only cross border (transboundary) rivers in the country. At present Kazakhstan receives annually around 44 km3 of water while the country’s total available water resources are 100,5 km3. Moreover the country significantly depends on other Central Asian states, thus 14,6 km3 and 3,0 km3 comes annually from Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan respectively.

> Central Asia Map
Today one cannot exclude the fact that lack of water could become fertile ground for the emergence of a regional conflict in relations between not only the above-mentioned countries, but also other players in the region in foreseeable future. Meanwhile the nature of the conflict will not be contained within the mentality of people inhabiting this region and the difference in economic development of the Central Asian countries but rather in the severity of access to water problem per se. For example Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have already put forward a claim to increase financial compensation for implementation of the work on their hydropower stations in the irrigation regime favorable for Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Over the years Bishkek and Dushanbe have been pointing at significant costs of maintenance of hydraulic engineering infrastructure.

Current political instability in Kyrgyzstan is not inspiring either; the issue of water supply in the southern regions of Kazakhstan has therefore become particularly relevant. Each year the latter faces unlimited water intake from Kyrgyzstan. Thus lack of water in 2008 affected Kazakh farmers. The cause of crop failure was a frivolous diversion of water from the Kyrgyz side. As a result of the political unrest in May 2010 without warning Kyrgyzstan again stopped water supply to Kazakhstan. The water supply was stopped on the Kirov reservoir, located on the territory of a neighboring state, where 80% of the total capacity is used by Kazakhstan for agricultural purposes. In addition, in June this year Uzbekistan reduced the passage of water from Kyrgyzstan to Kazakhstan in the cross-border channel Dostyk.  By doing so the Uzbek side referred to Kyrgyzstan, which in their opinion is the one to blame for reduction of the volume of water. Such disturbing moments once again evidence the existence of problems with water in a transboundary context.

To date, one of the most contentious issues remains the problem of division of water in transboundary rivers among various countries. Obviously, the existing distribution system has become obsolete and is now a source of growing discontent among neighboring countries. To prevent undesirable outcomes the Central Asian governments should intensify the regulation of processes of water resources use. The experience of the countries which had similar issues proved that entering into bilateral and multilateral agreements is an important tool for alleviating conflicts between those states. That is why the Central Asian countries need to intensify work on preparation and ratification of legal instruments which should be based on the international law. These documents should define the principles of division of transboundary rivers and serve as the basis for signing bilateral or, if appropriate, multilateral agreements on transboundary waters.

The case of Kazakhstan can be rather illustrative in this respect. The Kazakh government in due course called for prevention by all means of construction of Kambarata HPP in Kyrgyzstan alleging that enactment of the station “will inevitably disturb fragile balance of power and water supply in the region”. As a result, Bishkek and Astana have come to harmonize their water and energy needs. As a positive example one can also consider the work of expert groups and ad hoc committee of the two countries on use of the water of Talas and Chu. As a result, Kazakhstan has agreed to jointly finance the operation of hydraulic facilities in Kyrgyzstan.

It should be added that climate change could also lead to increased water scarcity. According to the Fourth report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the global warming is expected to cause changes in atmospheric circulation and redistribution of precipitation. Some scenarios forecast decrease in rainfall by almost 20% by 2100. In addition, the results of studies indicate that intensive melting of glaciers continues to take place in the zone of formation of Syr Darya and Amu Darya. According to different sources the volume of glaciers decreased from 20 to 40% in 50 years, whereas the rate of decline in recent years is about 1% per year. Decline in volume of glacier water in Central Asia, feeding Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers, may severely limit their inflow into the irrigation system in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan as well as undermine the development of hydroelectric power industry in Kyrgyzstan.

The paradox is that the water resources in the Central Asia provided they are used rationally are enough. However, excessive loss of water is caused by outdated agricultural system, where water consumption per unit exceeds the international indicators by three and sometimes ten times. According to specialists, transition to modern agricultural technology and water management will save up to half of the flow of transboundary rivers in the region annually. And if the water security in the region is not ensured today, the Central Asian countries will face serious social and economic problems tomorrow, which, in turn, is fraught with considerable negative consequences for each country.

The active cooperation on water and energy issues of all countries in the region is a way to solve the problem. Settlement of disputes through negotiation to achieve mutually beneficial agreements is the only possible approach in this regard. The integrated water resources management, which will allow for optimal regime of hydropower stations incorporating both national and regional interests, needs to be established.