"Tajikistan battles drought"

International Herrald Tribune / Business with Reuters / By Maria Golovnina  / Published June 12, 2008  http://www.iht.com/articles/2008/06/12/business/water.php

VAKHDAT, Tajikistan: Under a scorching sun, an exhausted Tajik woman looks at a drying trickle of irrigation water running across her cotton field.

"Water is all we have," said Gulbakhor, a 55-year-old mother of nine, pointing at swathes of parched land stretching toward the austere mountains of central Tajikistan. "But all the ponds and rivers are dry. We need to water our crop, but we don't have enough even for ourselves."

Gulbakhor's despair, shared by many of the approximately seven million other Tajiks in this former Soviet republic north of Afghanistan, reflects a growing sense of alarm throughout Central Asia, where stability depends on the region's scarcest and most precious commodity: water.

In Photo: Workers tending to a cotton field near the town of Vakhdat, Tajikistan (Shamil Zhumatov/Reuters)

From tiny irrigation canals like Gulbakhor's to the powerful Soviet-era hydroelectric plants, water is the source of misery and celebration in a poor region already overflowing with political and ethnic tension. Central Asia is one of the world's driest places, where, because of 70 years of Soviet planning, heavily water-reliant crops like cotton and grain remain the main livelihood for most of the 58 million people there.

Disputes over cross-border water use have simmered for years in this sprawling mass of land. Afghanistan, linked to Central Asia by the Amu Daria River, is adding to the tension by claiming its own share of the water. Water shortages are causing concern the world over, because of rising demand, climate change and swelling populations.

The United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki Moon, has said that water scarcity is a "potent fuel for wars and conflict."

Analysts say this year's severe weather fluctuations in Central Asia, from a record cold winter to devastating spring floods and now drought, are causing extra friction. "Water is very political," said Christophe Bosch, a water expert at the World Bank. "It's very sensitive. It can be a pretext for disputes or conflicts."

In the Tajik village of Sangtuda, a scattering of huts in a dusty, sun-puckered valley near the border with Afghanistan, villagers showed their only source of water: a rusty pipe pumping muddy water from a Soviet-era reservoir.

"We are lucky," said Khikoyat Shamsiddinova, an elderly farmer who said she had started planting drought-tolerant peas and watermelons. "There are villages around with no water at all."Water scarcity is particularly painful for Tajikistan because its glaciers and rivers contain some of the world's biggest untapped water resources. A Soviet-era legacy of waste and decaying pipe networks is hampering sustainable distribution.

The World Bank, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and a host of European nongovernmental organizations are helping Tajikistan build canals and wells and repair the old ones. Efficient water management requires advanced engineering expertise in water saving and resource planning in a region where most water simply vanishes into the ground if the irrigation timing is incorrect, Bosch said.

"If you look at quantity, yes, you have a lot of it, but it is not a question of quantity but quality and timing," Bosch said. "That's the problem in Central Asia." The problems are having an effect far beyond farming. Lacking oil and gas reserves like some of its neighbors, Tajikistan depends on its sole Soviet-era hydroelectric plant, Nurek, to generate power.

Its crumbling power grid finally gave out last winter, throwing hospitals, schools and millions of people into the dark and cold for weeks. With a foreign debt worth 40 percent of the economy and state coffers empty, Tajikistan is unable to finance urgent reforms in the sector, adding to discontent and potential unrest in an otherwise tightly run country where dissent is not tolerated.

"There is definitely a buildup of dissatisfaction," said one Western diplomat, who asked not be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue. "People will have to go through another winter of dark and cold and then they will realize that something's wrong."

There have been no outward signs of anger, but the trend is a worry for Western powers watching the strategically placed country for signs of trouble. In April, the government urged Tajiks to give up half their wages in May and June to help finish construction of the $3 billion Rogun hydroelectric plant - a project seen as pivotal to solving energy shortages.

President Imomali Rakhmon was quoted as saying in the local news media last month, "I urge all the patriots and sons of our land to take active part in constructing the first phase of the plant and add your contribution to the country's energy independence." In Soviet days, the water-management system was unified under the control of Moscow. The system linked Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, whose rivers and glaciers contain more than 90 percent of Central Asian water, with the arid plains of Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan.

The system fell apart when Soviet rule collapsed. With national rivalries on the rise, the new states have been unable to agree on how to share their water effectively.

Uzbekistan, Central Asia's most populous nation and a big gas producer, is angry that Tajikistan has the leverage to influence water levels in its cotton plains - a powerful political tool.

Farmers in Kazakhstan, for their part, accuse Uzbekistan of dumping fertilizer in Kazakh rivers. Tajik officials complain that foreign investment in its hydroelectric sector has stalled because of fears of conflict with Uzbekistan.

Observers agree that only cooperation between the five "stans" of Central Asia can provide sustainable water use.

"Countries should be able to do this as independent entities," said another Western diplomat, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the matter. "They're not children. They are grown-up members of the international community."