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Age-Old Water Problem Brings Tensions To A Boil

In energy-rich Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have long found themselves the odd men out. The smallest of the region’s five countries, they possess little if any of the massive natural gas and oil resources that are making Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan the target of investors from China to Europe. But tiny Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan do have one thing the others don’t: water. And it’s an issue that -- ahead of the scorching hot summer -- risks bringing simmering regional tensions to a full boil.

As temperatures shoot past 40 Celsius in many areas of Central Asia, the residents of the ancient Silk Road city of Bukhara sit in the scorching heat -- pondering a long, hot summer with little water.

But Bukhara is not alone.

The cities, towns, and villages of western Uzbekistan, and western Central Asia in general, are facing the same hot summer short of water -- a cruel fate considering many of these areas were flooded just weeks ago. The problem’s source lies some 1,000 kilometers away -- in the water-rich mountains of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

No Agreement

This week, in a bid to resolve their water problems before the summer sets in, officials from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan met in Bishkek to discuss ways to fairly share the region’s water and energy resources. But reports suggest the June 10-11 talks in the Kyrgyz capital not only failed to generate any agreement but may have exacerbated water and energy tensions among the haves and have-nots of Central Asia.

Central Asia's water problem is eternal. Traditionally, water supplies for much of a region covered in dry desert originate in the snow-capped mountains of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

But this year, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan look to face severe water shortages. That’s because both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan consumed much of their own water to generate emergency electricity supplies during one of the harshest winters in recent memory.
In Bishkek, the issue was top of the agenda. But there is a new twist in Central Asia’s water saga. The supplier countries in the east -- Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan -- are now increasingly pushing for something in return for their water. But Uzbekistan, among others, refuses to countenance paying for a resource that among Central Asians is generally considered a gift of God -- not a commodity that can be bought and sold.

It’s here the talks appear to have broken down, says Gregory Gleason, a veteran Central Asian specialist who has worked extensively with experts in the region on water issues.
"(Officials) in Uzbekistan have expressed to me that water is not a product that can be sold, that it is a product that people are entitled to, have a right to, and to reduce it to a commodity would be to violate Central Asian traditions," he said.

Bishkek, with Dushanbe as a tacit partner, has argued for years that it bears the full financial burden for maintaining the locks and dams along the rivers that eventually become the Syr-Darya, Central Asia's great river of the north. Since that water makes its way into Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz government says both neighboring countries should either help share the maintenance costs or else provide special terms for supplies of natural gas (from Uzbekistan) or coal (from Kazakhstan).

Sellable Commodity?

Kazakhstan has agreed to some extent, sending some free coal to Kyrgyzstan in compensation for using its water. But Tashkent continues to reject any suggestion of paying for water, even as it refuses to offer easier terms for energy-needy Bishkek and Dushanbe to purchase Uzbek natural gas.

The Kyrgyz government, however, has become increasingly vocal that its water should be viewed in the same light as the region’s other major resources -- gas and oil -- as a commodity.

"There are politicians in Kyrgyzstan and some water-management officials in Kyrgyzstan who have also adopted the idea of pricing water because they recognize that this is one of the commodities, one of the natural resources, that Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have that other countries in the region desperately need," Gleason said. "But it does come into conflict with many Central Asian traditions."

Kyrgyzstan annually releases 11 billion cubic meters of water through its reservoir systems into rivers that flow into Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Uzbekistan uses most of that, with Kazakhstan consuming the remainder.

Going into the Bishkek talks, Kyrgyzstan was reportedly offering the first 3 billion cubic meters of water free to Tashkent, but demanding payment for the rest. Uzbekistan rejected the terms -- and that, reports say, ended the meeting.

Kazakh officials seem to have been more amenable to Kyrgyzstan's proposal. That is, perhaps, less of a surprise considering Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev has proposed forming a Central Asian union to work out -- among other issues -- a regional "energy for water" agreement. Uzbek President Islam Karimov, for his part, made it clear as recently as last April that he has no interest in Uzbekistan joining a Central Asian union.

Central Asia is coming off a harsh winter, with extended periods of below-freezing temperatures. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, lacking gas and oil for heating, suffered the worst with both facing energy rationing. That was made worse when Uzbekistan, citing debts, reduced and at times suspended supplies of natural gas to both countries. At the start of winter, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan had increased the flow of water in their hydroelectric dams to compensate for lack of alternative energy supplies from neighbors, particularly Uzbekistan. By the New Year, Tajikistan was hardly generating any hydroelectricity.

Plenty of snow fell in the mountains, but Kyrgyz and Tajik water officials are now saying that it fell in the wrong places and that reservoirs are not being sufficiently replenished. Kyrgyzstan's massive Toktogul Reservoir is well below normal levels -- a situation that exists throughout the Kyrgyz and Tajik mountains.

And since there is no energy agreement with Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan can argue they need to fill their reservoirs for hydroelectric power this winter to avoid a repeat of last winter's energy rationing.

Where Central Asia’s water woes go from here is anybody’s guess. But as summer drags on, it will become clearer exactly what the region’s thirsty people are willing to do, or not do, to get a drink.

(RFE/RL 15.vi.08)