Breaking the Dam: Water Politics in Central Asia

In Central Asia, water has been more a source of tension than cooperation. While there have been joint efforts to save the Aral Sea, as well as a flood of internationally introduced technical projects, states in the region have spent most of the past two decades squabbling over the use of water. The region is muddling on with outdated allocation quotas from Soviet times, and the creation of new infrastructure projects like the Rogun Dam in Tajikistan has led to diplomatic saber rattling.

During the Soviet period, central planning created a “cotton belt” in the lowlands of what is now Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan, irrigated through a complex system of dams, pumps, and channels using water coming from mountains in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. However, the break up of the Soviet Union left the emerging republics of Central Asia without a regional water management strategy.

The inclusion of Afghanistan in transboundary water agreements (as recently discussed at a seminar organized by the OSCE) is long overdue, yet is not making the situation easier. Nonetheless, initiatives like the launch of the international year of water cooperation 2013 in Paris on February 11 can give badly needed attention to the problem. Can water help unite the countries of Central Asia, or will it increase tensions between them?

Key Conclusions

    • Water is in fact not so scarce as commonly perceived, and much can be done from the demand side, i.e., by improving unsustainable irrigation practices.
    • Attempts to reach an integrated solution to Central Asia’s water problems are doomed if there is no political will.
    • Afghanistan borders the region’s largest river, and, with rising demand for water, it must be part of the solution.
    • Central Asia is still a long way from an open “water clash,” but the course is being set and the ship needs to be turned in time.


Most of Central Asia is embedded in the Aral Sea basin, stretching from what is left of the Aral Sea in the west to the melting glacial “water towers” in the east. The two main rivers of the region, which flow from east to west, are the Syr Darya to the north and the Amu Darya to the south. The former runs from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan through Uzbekistan to the northern Aral Sea in Kazakhstan; the latter flows from Kyrgyzstan to Tajikistan, along the latter’s border with Afghanistan, through Turkmenistan and finally into the southern Aral Sea in Uzbekistan. These two rivers provide the main source for drinking water, irrigation, and hydropower in the region.

A major legacy of the Soviet era in Central Asia was the creation of an electricity-water nexus, whereby the generation of electricity from hydropower in upstream countries was linked to the water needs of those downstream. This system operated in the context of a common management system and shared energy arrangements through regional energy grids and networks. However, this system ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the overnight emergence of international borders. Water was increasingly seen as a national asset rather than a common resource, and the transition to commercial prices for the supply of hydrocarbons to upstream countries (formerly delivered freely as compensation for irrigation water) presented major difficulties for their economies.

Despite the fact that the countries of Central Asia jealously protect their water resources, water is not as scarce in the region as commonly perceived. Uzbekistan, for instance, has almost double the amount of water available per capita in comparison to Spain, which is one of the major agricultural producers in Europe. Therefore, a part of the solution could lie in the demand side by introducing a more effective use of water and a reform of water-consuming production systems. The question remains, of course, whether expensive infrastructure improvements or crop substitution are feasible in the near future.

Apart from consumption, the problem becomes one of distribution: since the break-up of the centrally-controlled system, water is not only disproportionately shared between up- and downstream countries, it is now often unequally distributed throughout the countries and provinces, and amongst populations and economic sectors, creating potential not for interstate, but also for intra-society conflicts.

The use of water was already an issue between the republics in Soviet times, but water allocation was centrally decided in Moscow. After becoming independent, the five new republics signed the Almaty Agreement on Joint Management of Water Resources in 1992, which led to the creation of the Interstate Commission for Water Coordination for Central Asia (ICWC), later subordinated to the International Fund for saving the Aral Sea (IFSA). While these agreements incorporate international water management principles, they lack definite time frames and execution mechanisms, and have in the past been called “dysfunctional.”

The main deficit of any agreement or discussion on water sharing in Central Asia is the absence of Afghanistan. It is the second largest contributor to the Amu Darya after Tajikistan. More than a quarter of Afghanistan’s population is living in the river basin, and it is the most agriculturally productive area of the country. Due to its internal situation, Afghanistan was not present on the international stage for three decades, and it is argued that the amount of water used by Afghanistan is not significant enough to create serious regional tensions. This, however, will change in the future if there is economic and social recovery in the country. Within its catalogue of possible confidence-building measures (CBMs), the Istanbul Process declaration calls for cooperation on water management, but also for the development of hydroelectric power as well as large-scale irrigation works, which would lead to increased water consumption if implemented.

Another main challenge for integrating Afghanistan in a regional system of water management is a lack of reliable data. For example, estimates of the amount of water from the Amu Darya river that are consumed in Afghanistan range from 2 to 25% of the river’s total flow. And not least, the question arises why Afghanistan should cooperate with its neighbors at all: as an upstream country, it does not have to fear water shortages nor does it have much to gain in return.

While the situation remains unresolved, it has, for a long time, been calm. However, mainly because of new infrastructure projects, regional tensions are increasing. One of the most controversial is the Rogun Dam in Tajikistan, which, if completed, would be the world’s highest hydroelectric dam: downstream Uzbekistan is not only afraid of water scarcity in summer, but also faces flooding in winter when water is released for electricity production. Because of this issue, relations between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan have deteriorated, recently leading to rail blockages and cuts in Uzbekistan’s gas deliveries to Tajikistan. Uzbekistan has also unilaterally closed most border checkpoints with both upstream countries and set mines along parts of the border with Tajikistan.

The international community—particularly the United Nations, the OSCE, and the European Union—has sought to mediate the dispute and find ways to balance the power and water needs of the region. Potential solutions have involved rebuilding cooperative management arrangements, increasing efficiency initiatives in water use, water pricing, and the development of alternative means to generate electricity through a series of much smaller dams. But most of these efforts have shown few results.

While de-escalation is needed in the short term, a new comprehensive and fair agreement for sharing water resources that includes Afghanistan is badly needed. Public participation in the formulation of agreements, as well as new, more inclusive forms of governance, could lead to a long-term settlement. But in the end, it will depend on the political will and readiness of Central Asia’s leaders to find a common solution. There is enough water for all countries of the region. Perhaps the international year of water cooperation can bring the parties closer together. Otherwise, tensions over water could open the floodgates to bigger regional tensions.

David Muckenhuber is a consultant at the International Peace Institute in Vienna. 

Image credit: Anastasia Osipova