Bilateral Agreements Offer a Way Out of Central Asia’s Water Woes, But Are They Sustainable?
Jul 1, 2021
Central Asia has met its ongoing record heatwave with a series of short-term bilateral agreements as rivers run dry and crops fail. While an improvement from the weak multilateral commissions and confrontational actions of the past, bilateral agreements fail to propose a long-term vision for sustainable water management that takes into account the interconnected flow of water and electricity across all five countries and the impact of climate change. Bilateral agreements offer much needed short-term fixes, but they should be pursued alongside a wider strategy of regional coordination.
For all Central Asian countries, water is a matter of national security. Amassed in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, where it is used to generate hydroelectricity to compensate for a dearth of hydrocarbon resources, glacier water then travels to Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan to irrigate fields and provide drinking water before reaching Kazakhstan. Eighty percent of the region’s water supply accumulates in Tajikistan's and Kyrgyzstan’s portions of the Amu Darya and Syr Darya basins. Yet, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan consume 84 percent of all water in Central Asia. Water in the region is not only necessary for human consumption but is also vital for economic activity. Cotton, a water-intensive crop, accounts for significant portions of Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan’s GDP, while Kyrgyzstan generates 40 percent of its electricity from the Toktogul Reservoir.
Early post-Soviet efforts at regional water cooperation disintegrated under escalating energy and debt quotas in the mid-2000s. Established under the 1992 Almaty Agreement signed by the five Central Asian republics, the Interstate Commission for Water Coordination’s regulation and enforcement mechanisms proved too weak to incentivize the actions of the newly sovereign states. In 1999, Kyrgyzstan prevented water from its Syr Darya reservoirs from reaching Kazakhstan until a coal delivery was completed. Kyrgyzstan was on the receiving end of a similar maneuver in 2014 when Uzbekistan cut off gas to its neighbor, citing unpaid debt, causing Bishkek to threaten the closure of water canals into Uzbekistan. Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan withdrew from the shared regional power grid in 2009, leaving Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan with energy blackouts over winter as glacial water fueling hydroelectric reservoirs froze.
Recent bilateral agreements indicate Central Asian presidents’ intent to move past spontaneous water disputes during the current hot spell. President Shavkat Mirziyoyev resolved Uzbekistan’s ongoing border dispute with Kyrgyzstan in March, leading to a coordinated electricity exchange with Tashkent supplying Kyrgyzstan with discounted electricity during spring months to allow the Kyrgyz Toktogul Reservoir to replenish. The water supply at the Toktogul Reservoir, vital to Uzbekistan’s agricultural industry, had dropped alarmingly to its lowest levels in a decade, causing Kyrgyz officials to consider closing its floodgates to refill the critical source of electricity.
President Mirziyoyev is pursuing similar bilateral solutions with Tajikistan. The two countries created a joint stock company in June to finance the ongoing construction of two hydroelectric power plants on Tajikistan’s portion of the Zarafshan River; a stark contrast to President Karimov’s threat of ‘serious confrontation’ in retaliation to Dushanbe's building of the Roghun Dam in 2012. Kazakhstan has likewise collaborated with Tajikistan to subsidize the release of 315 million cubic meters of water into southern Kazakhstan’s fields this summer.
Bilateral agreements, with lifespans ranging from one to three years, overcame early multilateral stalemates by lowering commitment costs and providing greater flexibility to respond to urgent needs. However, reactive, short-term fixes leave countries unprepared to face the imminent but long-term consequences of climate change. This year, the level of the Syr Darya dropped by about one-third and an estimated one-quarter of the water stored in Kyrgyz and Tajik glaciers will be lost by 2025.
Central Asian countries can preemptively address cyclic water shortages and longer-term food security problems related to global warming through regular, high-level meetings. Magzum Mirzagliyev, the Kazakhstan’s Minister of Ecology, Geology, and Natural Resources, offered to host a C5+1 meeting next fall on environmental cooperation with the five Central Asian ministers of ecology and U.S. Special Envoy for Climate John Kerry. The United States and international organizations, like the UN Regional Centre for Preventive Diplomacy in Central Asia (UNRCCA), can supply their technical expertise, while Nur-Sultan and Tashkent, a rising regional mediator, can offer their leadership.
To meet twenty-first-century challenges, Central Asian countries must reinforce bilateral diplomacy with longer-term multilateral cooperation that acknowledges the threat climate change poses to future stability.
Image Source: Jeremy Cohen/Caspian Policy Center