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vice president harris emphasizes water security: central asia is a contender for partnership

Vice President Harris Emphasizes Water Security: Central Asia is a Contender for Partnership

Author: Dante Schulz

Jul 4, 2022

Image source: wikimedia commons/Peter Milosevic

On June 1, U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris emphasized water security as an essential foreign policy priority. Harris mentioned that improving water security would enhance public health results and bolster local economic output, which in turn would decrease internal conflicts and domestic turmoil. 

The World Resources Institute revealed that water crises are significant contributors to political instability and human displacement. As the globe witnesses an ever-growing population and approaches irreversible climate change conditions, UNICEF warns that the number of water-related conflicts is expected to increase worldwide.

Central Asia is undergoing immense water-related stress. Approximately 22 million people residing in the five Central Asian countries, constituting almost one-third of the population, lack access to safe and clean water supplies. Rapidly growing populations, inefficient agricultural technologies, and poorly coordinated government responses are only exacerbating the water shortage.

Central Asia depends heavily on irrigated agriculture sourced from the Syr Darya and Amu Darya. Under the Soviet Union, the upstream Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan republics would allow the rivers to flow naturally downstream to Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan during the vegetative season. In turn, the upstream republics would store enough water during the winter months to power hydroelectric facilities, leaving downstream republics in need of an energy source. These left downstream countries using fossil-fuel deliveries to supplement their loss in hydroelectric power in the winter. After the Soviet Union dissolved, the newly independent Central Asian states ratified the Almaty Agreement, recognizing the immediate need to prevent any water-related conflicts. According to the 1992 agreement, states were banned from negatively affecting the water supplies of their neighbors, obliged to coordinate response efforts in the event of catastrophic dilemmas, and entered into a water quota system. The Soviet style system transcended independence but was accompanied with the complexities of independent governments and crisscrossed borders.

Still, the region has been riddled with water-related conflicts. Shortly after the agreement was ratified, Kyrgyzstan issued a resolution classifying water as a commodity, essentially leaving downstream Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan responsible for water, storage, and maintenance payments. The resolution received a rebuke from Uzbekistan, which considered water a free, public good. Tashkent reacted by slashing natural gas deliveries to its neighbor. The result was ruinous. The bilateral relationship between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan crumbled, sending the two countries and their residents into a deadlock over how to resolve water-related issues. Thousands of Kyrgyz and Uzbek citizens in the Ferghana Valley were forced to drink unsafe water left over from irrigation channels. Considering that 80 percent of Uzbekistan’s water supply comes from outside of the country, fighting with its neighbors could turn calamitous quickly. The Central Asian Alliance for Water (CAAW) estimated that 60 percent of Ferghana Valley residents lacked access to safe drinking water in 2003.

Disagreements over water supplies persisted for the next two decades. Unfortunately, fighting over water resources is not uncommon in the Ferghana Valley. Farmers who once thrived off of the irrigation channels are now relying on water men to ensure that fields are evenly irrigated, often leading to violent encounters. In April 2021, Kyrgyz and Tajik citizens engaged in a scuffle after a group of Tajik citizens was seen installing surveillance cameras at the shared “Golovnoy” water intake station. The fighting left 36 Kyrgyz and 19 Tajik citizens dead. The Ferghana Valley, which holds about 25 percent of the region’s population, was also home to many of the region’s insurgent fighters and anti-government organizations. Disgruntled farmers with little government support are increasingly seeking violent means to protect their scarce water supplies.

Climate change will only aggravate the fighting among communities over coveted water supplies. The Tian Shan mountain range, which supplies the Syr Darya its continuous stream, lost 27 percent of its glacial mass between 1961 and 2012. The German Research Centre for Geosciences projects that the glacier will have lost half of its original ice mass by 2050. Less glacial ice means more scant water flows to downstream countries. By 2050, the Syr Darya and the Amu Darya are expected to lose 22-28 percent and 26-35 percent of their volume respectively. Furthermore, rising temperatures will increase the demand for water in countries heavily involved in the water-intensive cotton growing industry.

Perhaps the starkest example of climate change in the region is the drying up of the Aral Sea. Once the fourth largest lake on the globe, the Aral Sea’s eastern basin completely dried up in 2016 due to water-intensive cotton cultivation. The sea is now divided into two parts and is only one-tenth of its original size. Residents who once depended on the sea for employment have lost their jobs and were forced to migrate to cities for income, and contamination of downwind regions with windborne salt is a growing environmental disaster.

In very few other places do Harris’ warnings ring truer than in Central Asia. The landlocked region of almost 80 million people is in desperate need of substantial policy change and clear indication that governments will devise a new solution to manage water shortages. The result of unsustainable government policies and bilateral rancor is a region thirsty for water that is increasingly less patient to wait for it. As climate change heightens the impact of water scarcity, violent skirmishes, insurgencies, and unemployment will rise, unless action is taken. Harris underscored that accessing clean water is a cornerstone to U.S. foreign policy. Therefore, the United States should partner with the Central Asian states to advance water security in the region and to mitigate the detrimental effects of climate change.

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