Water Problems in Asia

RETHINKING WATER IN CENTRAL ASIA The costs of inaction and benefits of water cooperation

RETHINKING WATER IN CENTRAL ASIA The costs of inaction and benefits of water cooperation


Benjamin Pohl, adelphi Annika Kramer, adelphi William Hull, adelphi Sabine Blumstein, adelphi Iskandar Abdullaev, CAREC Jusipbek Kazbekov, CAREC Tais Reznikova, CAREC Ekaterina Strikeleva, CAREC Eduard Interwies Stefan Görlitz

International cooperation over water resources that are shared between several countries offers significant opportunities. It helps minimize the impacts that water use in one country may have on other riparian countries, and allows for a maximization of overall benefits for all basin countries. Water quality, hydropower production, irrigation and food production, flood control, navigation and environmental services can often be more efficiently optimized at the basin level (or even above) than within the national borders that frequently criss-cross the natural hydrology. Yet cooperation is not a foregone conclusion. In many transboundary basins, water use is highly contested. This is also true for Central Asia, which is witnessing intense competition over water resources and their use for irrigation and hydropower generation. Despite a general commitment to cooperation, water policies in the region are mostly driven by uncoordinated national strategies. A combination of low water efficiency, negative externalities caused by unilateral action and competing national priorities have caused disagreements and contributed to political and diplomatic disputes between Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, the five countries that form the geographic scope of this report. Insufficient water cooperation entails significant costs and major risks for the future development of the region. This report dubs these the ‘costs of inaction’. ‘Inaction’ does not literally refer to a situation in which no action takes place at all, but to a situation where no action is taken to improve (transboundary) water management: the costs of inaction measure the difference between the limited cooperation we currently have and the benefits that would result from full cooperation.

 Even if only parts of these costs are taken into account, they amount to more than US$ 4.5 billion per year for Central Asia. By raising awareness of the costs of inaction, and by setting out a variety of pathways towards eliminating them in the future, this report seeks to encourage and support Central Asian policy-makers in making the case for greater regional water cooperation and improved water governance. The scale of these costs contains significant opportunities as better water management and closer cooperation can lower these costs substantially. The challenge As in many international basins, the core of the water management challenge in Central Asia is a conflict of interest between upstream and downstream countries. Upstream Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have abundant water resources of which they want to release more during winter so as to fulfil their energy needs through hydropower generation.

Downstream Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, by contrast, have far less internal renewable water resources and want the water from transboundary rivers to be released primarily in summer in order to meet their irrigation needs and avoid uncontrolled winter flooding. What differentiates the transboundary basins in Central Asia from most other contested international basins is the presence of an extensive transboundary water infrastructure, a legacy of the region’s shared history as republics of the Soviet Union until 1991. The Soviet Union constructed major dams and reservoirs in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. At the time, water was stored in these reservoirs primarily for summer releases for irrigation in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. Hydropower generation was only a secondary objective because energy was cheap. Energy for upstream republics, which are poor in fossil fuel deposits, was provided by central planning that drew on fossil fuel imports from downstream neighbours.

This implicit resource-sharing system collapsed in the aftermath of the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Since 1991, energy prices started to increase towards global levels. As a consequence, upstream states started to increase hydropower production, with water releases from their reservoirs increasingly driven by upstream winter electricity rather than downstream summer irrigation needs. This shift in water release patterns (from predominantly summer to increasing winter releases) has negatively affected downstream countries through the reduced availability of water for irrigation and uncontrolled winter flooding. Moreover, upstream countries plan to expand their hydropower capacity by building new dams and expanding irrigated agriculture. Downstream countries oppose these plans as they fear that modified release patterns and increased upstream control and consumption will leave them even more vulnerable to seasonal scarcity. These developments have resulted in considerable tensions between Central Asian states and have limited regional cooperation within, but also beyond the water sector. By foreclosing the significant efficiency gains that would result from closer cooperation, for example in regional electricity markets or transport links, insufficient water cooperation hampers economic development in all countries and has the potential to undermine national and regional stability. Currently, a window of opportunity seems to be opening as countries witness some success in establishing constructive dialogues on these issues. If countries succeed in moving beyond entrenched positions that hark back to past resource use patterns or perceived injustices and instead focus on pragmatic mutual benefits that reach beyond water allocation, this can form the basis for finding new, sustainable solutions.

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