Central Asians Move Closer on Water Dispute




March 24, 2010



A series of meetings between Central Asian leaders reflects a new drive to move forward on the vexed issues of energy and water use in the region.


During a March 16-17 visit to the Uzbek capital Tashkent, Kazakstan’s president Nursultan Nazarbayev said he was backing Uzbekistan’s demand that before new hydroelectric dams currently under construction in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are completed, they must be the subject of an international study to assess their likely environmental impact on the wider region.

The Kazak leader said that before visiting
Uzbekistan, he had met the Kyrgyz and Tajik leaders, Kurmanbek Bakiev and Imomali Rahmon, both of whom had agreed to such a study.

If Bakiev and Rahmon state this publicly, it will represent a significant breakthrough. So far the Central Asian states have been deeply divided on the dam issue.

The Tajiks and Kyrgyz insist they have the right to complete the Roghun and Kambarata hydropower schemes to alleviate their chronic energy shortages.
Uzbekistan, in particular, objects strongly, arguing that major new dams could seriously reduce water flows down the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers, on which its agriculture is dependent. Kazakstan and Turkmenistan would also be affected by any change in the water supply, and have tended to side with the Uzbeks, though less stridently.

Following his talks with President Islam Karimov, Nazarbaev also held out an olive branch to
Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, saying Uzbekistan as well as his own country would be interested in joining consortia to build the dams once the environmental impact studies were completed satisfactorily.

Meanwhile, Turkmen president Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov also discussed water issues on a visit to
Tajikistan. Commenting on the outcome of the talks on March 18, President Rahmon said that in using the water resources that rise on its territory, Tajikistan would consider not only its own legitimate needs but also “common regional interests”.

NBCentral Asia experts say the regional dispute has reached critical point, and if
Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are prepared to make concessions, progress will become possible by agreeing to an assessment of their dams.

“This amounts to rational decision-making, although it’s been happening at different top-level meetings and has been articulated by various government officials – and now during Nazarbayev’s visit to Tashkent,” said a political analyst in Uzbekistan, “These neighbouring countries have realised they need to be able to reach agreement.

In the current environment, he said, national leaders needed to curb their ambitions for primacy in the region and instead look for negotiated settlements that suited everyone. “Otherwise,” he added, “a third party may intervene and then conflict will be inevitable”.

Tashpulat Yoldashev, an Uzbek political analyst based in the United States, believes the only reason the Kyrgyz and Tajik leaders agreed to a region-wide environmental study was that it would show up problems in Uzbekistan like the drying up of the Aral Sea and the heavy saline content in soil, which they could argue had a greater direct impact than the construction of new dams.

Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan have agreed to conduct the assessment, see what findings it produces and then take action afterwards,” he said.

On the question of
Uzbekistan and Kazakstan taking a role in building the dams, the Tashkent-based commentator said the Kyrgyz and Tajiks were unlikely to embrace the idea.

“Uzbek and Kazak participation in a consortium constructing the new dams would also mean they would have a role in how they operate,” he explained. “That means
Uzbekistan and Kazakstan would acquire the leverage to insist that the dams are used for building up water for irrigations, and that any shortfall in power deficits would be covered by purchases of gas and [other] fuel.”

Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are likely to want to run water through the hydroelectric turbines late in the year to generate power for the winter, whereas Uzbekistan, with Turkmenistan and Kazakstan, prefers water to be held over until spring and summer to irrigate the fields. With few mineral resources of their own, the Kyrgyz and Tajiks have to buy natural gas and petroleum products from their neighbours, which have been charging them more and more in recent years.