Crossroads Asia

Thirsty Yet? Central Asia’s Coming Water Crisis

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Crossroads Asia

Thirsty Yet? Central Asia’s Coming Water Crisis

Everyone agrees water is a growing problem in the region, but the states of Central Asia can’t agree on what to do.

Thirsty Yet? Central Asia’s Coming Water Crisis
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“Water is life. Water is health. Water is dignity. Water is a human right,” UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said last week at a conference in Tajikistan aimed at assessing the results of the UN’s decade-long “Water for Life” initiative, launched in 2005.

Reportedly 2,000 participants attended the event, hearing more than 70 reports in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe. But, Eurasianet notes, “despite numerous statements of concern, the meeting produced no substantive measures.” Meaningless conferences apparently don’t just happen in Washington, DC. After an entire decade of concerted focus on the issue, Central Asia remains one of the most irresponsible regions when it comes to water.

A center on international water diplomacy, proposed by Tajik officials in 2013, never came into existence. Neither did a reservoir and consortium scheme. It isn’t for lack of recognizing the problem–just about every regional leader has made a speech or several on the importance of water.

In 2012, Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov, ticked at Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan’s dam building, said that “today many experts declare that water resources could tomorrow become a problem around which relations deteriorate, and not only in our region. Everything can be so aggravated that this can spark not simply serious confrontation but even wars.”

Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan sit upriver on the Amu Darya and Syr Darya, the region’s two main rivers upon which Uzbekistan relies for water irrigated to sate its cotton crops’ thirst. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan for their part, dam rivers for energy. Both are mountainous and lack the deep resource wealth of Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. They hope to increase their hydropower output to such a degree that they can export it south into Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The water scarcity issue is thus in part, political and economic. Uzbekistan hasn’t shied from hitting back at Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan in various ways. Last year Uzbekistan cut gas supplies to Kyrgyzstan over a contract technicality, gas began to flow again in the middle of winter after eight months. A recent report in Tajikistan’s Asia-Plus commented that Uzbekistan was not keen to lift visa requirements for Tajiks any time soon.

Relations between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are currently strained because of the former’s plans to build the Roghun hydroelectric power plant (HPP). Tajik authorities believe that the Roghun dam is solution to many problems Tajikistan faces today, including frequent electricity shortages during winters.

The Roghun HPP could generate both enough electricity to provide for Tajikistan’s population and enough excess to export to Pakistan, Afghanistan, or China.

Uzbekistan is downstream country and its authorities consider that Tajikistan will use the dam as a means of leverage to pressure Uzbekistan in the many political disputes between the two countries.

The crisis is not just rooted in the political realm, though politics certainly explains the lack of coordinated progress. Environmental conditions nonetheless conspire against the region. Milder winters and less snow means less water flowing into reservoirs and further downstream–climate change is largely responsible for this shift. One only has to look at damning pictures of the Aral Sea’s change over the past 30 years from the world’s fourth largest lake to little more than a poisoned puddle to get the scale of the problem.

Central Asia is not alone. Marcel Vaessen, head of the Caucasus and Central Asia branch of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said in his presentation in Dushanbe that by 2030, 47 percent of the world’s population is projected to be living in areas of “high water stress.”