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As Central Asia Dries Up, States Spar Over Shrinking Resources

While Tajikistan sees energy independence and economic development in hydropower on the Vakhsh and other rivers, Uzbekistan fears for its agriculture on an already-overburdened river system.
While Tajikistan sees energy independence and economic development in hydropower on the Vakhsh and other rivers, Uzbekistan fears for its agriculture on an already-overburdened river system.
Qubay Ortiqov is a farmer from Karakalpakstan, a remote region in the Central Asian state of Uzbekistan.

"We have planted cotton with expectations, but we cannot irrigate it. Right now we're supposed to have finished the second stage of irrigation, but we haven't been able to do it," Ortiqov said, adding that he had lost 20 hectares of cotton.

Shepherds were also suffering, Ortiqov said, with animals not able to find enough to eat. There wasn't even enough water to grow wheat. "We planted wheat but the harvest was not good, and it was because of insufficient water."

Ortiqov is one of hundreds of thousands of people in the region who depend directly on water from the Amu Darya River not only for irrigation, but also for personal use.

According to Ortiqov, the situation is only getting worse. "This is the third time during the last 10 years that the flow of water has been this low in the Amu Darya," he said. "Things are only getting worse here, and because of this people are abandoning the village."

Earlier this month the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) released a report on the situation in the Amu Darya Basin. The report criticizes Central Asian governments for failing to agree on ways to cooperate on water management. Unless they can find a way to coordinate their effort, the report concludes, the future does not look bright for farmers like Ortiqov.

Mighty River Spread Thin

The Amu Darya -- known in the past as the Oxus -- has not always been like this. For most of its history it has been praised for its richness and fertility. The region's writers have even written love poems to the river.

The upper reaches of the Amu Darya form part of Afghanistan's northern border with Tajikistan. Elsewhere it marks part of the boundary between Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.

Originating from various water sources in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Afghanistan, the Amu Darya flows northwest to its mouth on the southern shore of the Aral Sea. At 2,540 kilometers in length, the Amu Darya is the longest river in Central Asia.

When the Soviets controlled the region, they established a network of water pumps and irrigation canals to boost the region's agriculture. Until 1992, the entire region's water resources were managed by a centralized system based in Moscow. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, however, the situation has deteriorated rapidly.

Since then, the population of the region has more than doubled, as has the demand for water. The economies of Central Asian countries are heavily dependent on farming. The agricultural sector employs 67 percent of the labor force in Tajikistan, 45 percent in Uzbekistan, and 48 percent in Turkmenistan.

Regional Disputes, Distrust

As demand increases and the volume of water in the river continues to shrink, disputes among the stakeholders over water management are becoming more and more complicated.

Tajikistan's foreign minister, Hamrokhon Zarifi, told journalists at a July 18 press conference in Dushanbe that "differences of opinion" regarding the river were affecting the nature of overall relations between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, and have not improved.

At the center of their disagreement lies Tajikistan's plan to complete the construction of Rogun, a Soviet-era hydropower dam that is being built on the Vaksh River, one of the source of the Amu Darya.

If completed to its full specifications, said Johannes Linn, senior resident scholar at the Washington-based Emerging Markets Forum, "it would be the highest hydroelectric dam in the world, and this is what makes Uzbekistan concerned."

"The problem, obviously, is that Uzbekistan feels threatened by what they regard as a potential control of Tajikistan over the downstream water resources and do not want Tajikistan to be able to exercise such control," Linn said, "while on the other hand Tajikistan feels that it is essential for its long-term development that it uses the water resources at its disposal that are generated in the country to the extent possible -- and the intention being without harming downstream neighbors."

However legitimate Tajikistan's reasoning may be, it does not meet with a warm reception from Uzbek officials or farmers like Ortiqov. Uzbekistan has done what it can to block construction of the dam. The Uzbeks have called upon the international community to conduct an independent study of the Rogun project, noting that much has changed in the region since the Soviets first conceived the plan in 1976.

The Tajiks accuse the Uzbek government of curtailing the overland transit of goods to their landlocked country -- although the Uzbeks insist that the delays in railroad shipments have nothing to do with the dam issue. The Uzbeks have also partially suspended electricity supplies from Turkmenistan to Tajikistan and cut off their own exports of urgently needed natural gas to the Tajiks.

Some experts contend that these reprisals will hit Tajik industry hard and plunge its entire population into darkness. Others say that such fears are exaggerated.

New Exacerbating Factors

According to the UN report, the existing problems are now being magnified by climate change.

Cotton is a major industry in Uzbekistan since Soviet times.
Since the 1950s, the report says, the number of days with temperatures higher than 40 degrees Celsius has doubled, especially in the Amu Darya delta region. Temperatures are projected to rise by 2-3 degrees in the next 50 years. The report says that the glaciers in the high mountains of Central Asia are vanishing. Runoff from the glaciers is one important source of the waters of the Amu Darya.

And then there is the problem of Afghanistan.

Today over 80 percent of its population depends on farming, and the demand for water there is increasing. This is sure to aggravate the scarcity for the countries downstream from Afghanistan.

"As Afghanistan hopefully will develop peacefully in the next few years, its agriculture will develop the tributaries that flow through its territory. Water will be increasingly utilized for local irrigation," Johannes Linn said. "And that will mean that there will be less water that will flow into the main river. That particularly affects Turkmenistan, which is immediately downriver, but then also could affect Uzbekistan."

A Need For Partnership

Despite the lack of a proper agreement and emerging problems and challenges over the water-management issue, in particular with the Amu Darya, the status quo continues. As water supplies continue to decrease, Nick Nuttall of UNEP observes, the situation will likely continue to deteriorate.

"It's clear that the Amu Darya River basin and its tributary rivers are essential for hydropower, for drinking water, for agriculture production, all the basic things that actually people need as they develop over the coming years. It doesn't really have a classic time frame attached to it, in terms of this report," Nuttall said.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon visits the "ship cemetery" in Muynak, a former port city in Uzbekistan on the Aral Sea, in 2010. Will the Amu Darya suffer a similar fate?

"But it certainly points to hot spots and flashpoints that could emerge between the countries who share this finite resource, unless they actually move to cooperate and plan in a sense more smartly and more intelligently how together they are going to collectively utilize this river system," he added.

Collectively utilizing this resource would require trust among the leaders of Central Asia, which, according to Johannes Linn, does not exist at the moment.

Tajik Foreign Minister Zarifi recently proposed plans for boosting coordinated use of water resources among the members of the Commonwealth of Independent States, a grouping of former Soviet republics.

"While some improvements have been made in establishing closer partnerships between the member states," Zarifi said, "there is more that needs to be done, which includes the issue of water sharing between the Central Asian countries."

As conditions continue to deteriorate, farmers like Ortiqov can only hope that an agreement is made soon.

Iskander Aliev of RFE/RL's Tajik Service and Alisher Sidikov of RFE/RL's Uzbek Service contributed to this report

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