Business Week

January 3, 2008

 

Tajikistan's Water Woes

by Farhod Sharipov and Jahongir Boboev

 

The complexities of Central Asia's water issues are apparent as nations argue over the region's rivers and the need for hydropower and irrigation

 

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Last summer Uzbek President Islam Karimov, speaking to his fellow regional leaders, assailed "some countries" in Central Asia that are keen on constructing hydropower stations on cross-border rivers for their "various and ambiguous approaches."

 

Although Karimov did not state explicitly which countries he was referring to during the summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, it was clear he meant Tajikistan, which has proposed or is already building a number of power stations on the Vakhsh and Pyandzh rivers.

 

The confluence of the two rivers is the source of the Amu Darya, Central Asia's longest river, which forms portions of borders for both Uzbekistan and Tajikistan and finally empties into the Aral Sea in Uzbekistan.

 

"Today this issue [of water] represents the interests of more than 50 million people living in the countries of the region," Karimov said.

 

He added that a failure to manage the situation appropriately could affect the "provision of water in the lower course of the Amu Darya and Syr Darya," another river that runs mostly through Kazakhstan: "That is why all kinds of decisions on the use of these rivers' sources, including the construction of hydropower stations, must take these interests into consideration." Karimov also said hydropower development could "speed up the ecological catastrophe of the desiccation of the Aral Sea and make it practically impossible to live for tens of millions of residents of Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan."

 

Karimov's warnings highlight the complexities of Central Asia's water issues. In particular, Uzbekistan is in conflict with Dushanbe over hydropower development in Tajikistan, because the water that could generate additional electricity and smelt more aluminum upstream is also needed to water Uzbekistan's valuable cotton crop.

 

For its part, Tajikistan sees new dams and hydropower plants as necessary for its economic health. Consequently, the countries are locked in disagreement.

 

Tajikistan's greatest natural resource is the water stored in its glaciers, lakes and rivers. NASA photo.

 

STUNTED GROWTH

 

According to an International Crisis Group report, "Competition for water is increasing in Central Asia at an alarming rate, adding tension to what is already an uneasy region." The Eurasian Economic Community, a consortium of regional governments, has reported that between 1960 and 2000, the population of the region tripled and the area of irrigated lands -- largely used for agricultural mainstays like cotton and rice -- almost doubled. As a result, the demand for water skyrocketed.

 

In comparison to its oil- and gas-rich neighbors, Tajikistan possesses vast water resources. According to the United Nations Development Program in 2006, the country has 4 percent of the world's hydroelectric potential, although much of it is untapped. The water is stored in glaciers, rivers, lakes, and underground sources, and there currently are nine operational reservoirs containing 15.34 cubic kilometers of water. Tajik water is used regionally for sanitation, irrigation, and drinking.

 

Not surprisingly, Tajikistan's water resources could provide large quantities of electricity for both domestic customers and exports. But a lack of investment in the hydropower sector has left Tajikistan relying on imported oil and gas for most of its energy and bemoaning its inability to earn substantial capital from hydropower shipped outside its borders.

 

The tension with Uzbekistan is only exacerbating the problem. Uzbekistan relies heavily on cotton for economic stability; it is the second largest exporter of the crop in the world. Thus, its objections to Tajikistan's proposed hydropower projects involve concerns about environmental and economic mismanagement of water needed to keep fields fertile. Any changes in the flow of the Amu Darya, Uzbek officials say, could pose irrigation problems for Uzbekistan's cotton crop if they are not implemented and maintained properly.

 

In early 2007, an agreement to construct a hydropower station on the Zeravshan River was secured between Barki Tajik (Tajik Electricity) and a Chinese company.