October 11, 2007



Deirdre Tynan


Tajikistan is agitating for greater cooperation among Central Asian states on water-related issues. Publicly, some of Dushanbeís neighbors are resisting the Tajik water-management initiative. But some experts say Central Asian states, in particular Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, are working quietly to resolve differences.


Tajikistan made a diplomatic push during the recent United Nations General Assembly to raise the profile of Central Asiaís water dilemma. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, Central Asiaís poorest nations, are the chief regional suppliers. Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, respectively the most populous and prosperous of Central Asian states, are big consumers. Uzbekistan, in particular, requires an enormous amount of water, much of it wasted due to antiquated infrastructure, for its cotton industry.


Although experts have cautioned that the region could be headed for a socio-economic catastrophe if a regional accord on water usage is not worked out soon, Central Asian states have made no discernable progress toward an agreement in recent years. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Tajikistanís plan to develop its hydro-power generating capacity, which Tajik leaders view as the countryís main engine of economic development, is helping to heighten diplomatic tension in the region. Officials are having a tough time finding the balancing point between various environmental and economic interests.


Sirodjidin Aslov, Tajikistanís permanent representative to the UN, recently outlined his countryís vision of water use in the region. Without delving into specifics, he defended Tajikistanís dam-building plans, insisting that the entire region would enjoy benefits. New dams in Tajikistan, he added, would help promote the rational use of water resources throughout the region.


"Tajikistan believes it has the right to develop its hydropower branch of the economy through building water reservoirs and dams on the major rivers of the country," said Aslov, citing the Declaration on the Right to Development. "The implementation of hydropower projects in Tajikistan is advantageous not only for the country itself, but will be able to favorably influence sustainable development of the other states in the region."


One of Tajikistanís major projects is the Rogun dam, construction of which began in 1976 and which has made scant progress since. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. According to Aslov, Rogun would be able to provide enough water to irrigate an additional 3 million hectares of land downstream.


Additionally, Lake Sarez, which has been acknowledged as an environmental hazard should the natural dam formed across the Mughrab River after an earthquake in 1911 give way, could provide fresh drinking water to Central Asiaís growing population, said Aslov. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].


Referring to plans advanced by Tajik President Imomali Rahmon earlier this year to drain water from the lake via a tunnel, Aslov said the initiative "would make it possible to eliminate a real threat" to the millions who live downstream.


To date, only Kyrgyzstan has fully backed Tajikistanís ambitious plans, as well as Dushanbeís calls for a legally binding regional water-sharing framework. Both countries are hoping to bolster their weak state budgets with energy exports, while at the same time freeing themselves from their seasonal dependency on Uzbek energy imports. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].


Uzbekistan, as a downstream user of Tajik and Kyrgyz water, remains cautious about what it calls "various and ambiguous approaches" to water and energy resources. Uzbekistanís over-reliance on cotton as cash crop makes it extremely vulnerable to water mismanagement at any point on either the Amu Darya or Syr Darya rivers which originate in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan respectively.


Uzbek Foreign Minister Vladimir Norov told the UNís General Assembly that "if needed" Uzbekistan would seek compensation from neighboring states that pursue hydroelectric projects without due environmental diligence or proper consultation. "It is necessary to underscore that the point is about the use of resources and watercourses of trans-boundary rivers, which for centuries have been maintaining the vitally important needs of states and people living along the stream of these rivers," Norov said.


"Uzbekistan believes that all decisions on the use of watercourses of trans-boundary rivers, including the construction of hydro-energy facilities, must in no way inflict damage to the ecology and infringe upon the interest of the populations of countries on the neighboring territories," the Uzbek foreign minister added.


Norov hinted that a unilateral Tajik move to proceed with dam construction would violate existing international agreements. Stressing the need for regional approval and cooperation, Norov cited UN conventions on trans-boundary and international watercourses signed in 1991, 1992 and 1997. "According to these fundamental requirements of the UN conventions, authoritative international experts must give guarantees that the construction of hydro-technical facilities will not have irremediable ecological consequences, and will not break the established balance of the use. ... We are convinced that the fulfillment of these requirements must be mandatory in implementing various projects on building hydro-energy facilities in Central Asia with participation of both national and trans-national companies so that not to allow for the catastrophic deterioration of the ecological situation in the region."


Aslam Chaudhry, a UN technical adviser on water and environment who helped organize the Dushanbe Water Forums in 2003 and 2005, said that despite public posturing both Uzbekistan and Tajikistan were engaging in meaningful, though low-profile discussions.


"Undoubtedly the Uzbeks will be affected by the Rogun dam, but this project has been on the scene since 1976. Theyíve not made much progress. It still requires a lot of research. Nobody knows just how cost effective it will be," Chaudhry said.


"But the Tajiks and Uzbeks have a working relationship. These discussions are not in the political forefront, but are behind closed doors," he continued. "The case has been made for cooperation not conflict, but much depends on how the Tajiks intend to share the benefits."



Editorís Note: Deidre Tynan is a freelance journalist specializing in Central Asia.