Tashkent has kept quiet — a break from the country’s past strident opposition to the dam project. Relations between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan significantly improved after the death of Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan’s first president, in 2016. In March 2018, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, the new Uzbek leader, made a historic visit to Dushanbe, meeting his counterpart President Emomali Rakhmon. After signing 27 agreements between two countries, Mirziyoyev announced: “We (Uzbekistan and Tajikistan) have no remaining unresolved issues.”
How long can this bonhomie truly last? The diplomacy surrounding water between the two countries has hit a positive streak, but the core issue nonetheless remains: it is not clear how Uzbekistan will cope with less water flowing from Tajikistan after the construction of the Rogun dam is completed.
Water Mismanagement in Uzbekistan
Uzbekistan is a double landlocked and semi-arid country. The nation has less than 10 percent arable lands concentrated in river valleys and oases while the rest is covered by deserts and mountains. While Uzbekistan is among the top countries in water withdrawal per capita, the country has few internal freshwater resources. Uzbekistan was ranked at 152nd out of 180 listed nations, having 531.25 cubic meters of renewable internal freshwater resources per capita. Given its geography, Uzbekistan is dependent on neighboring countries for a huge share of the water it consumes. Meanwhile, in the face of global climate change, the Uzbek leadership has not been successful in implementing more sustainable management of the water resources it does have.
Uzbekistan’s economy continues to rely heavily on cotton, which is a very water intensive crop. Uzbekistan’s cotton fields are largely irrigated by inefficient and outdated canal networks constructed in the Soviet period. According to the UNDP in Uzbekistan, out of 3.7 million hectares of irrigated land served by the Uzbek Association of Water Consumers (AWC), 1.28 million hectares were used for cotton in 2016. Uzbekistan’s old irrigation system is reportedly the cause of 30-60 percent losses in available water supplies.
The Uzbek government is also facing another challenge which puts pressure on its water resources: a growing population. Uzbekistan’s fertility rate is 2.5; the population grows by almost a half million people every year. Almost half of Uzbekistan’s population lives in cities. The other half, in rural areas, has limited access to clean water for basic personal hygiene and sanitation.
Mirziyoyev has spoken several times about improving the living conditions in rural areas, and the necessity to build more apartment complexes in cities. As a result, there is a construction boom in all of Uzbekistan’s major cities and some rural areas as well. The urbanization rate will likely pick up in the coming years as a result. Utility services will have to cope with higher demand for water supplies in the future. At present, utility services for energy and water are provided by public monopoly agencies, which are notoriously inefficient in providing water supplies and collecting bills.
A Middle Eastern Model of Sustainable Water Usage
Uzbekistan can learn a lot from Israel’s experience in water management. Israel has been successful in developing sustainable water management given harsh conditions and limited resources. In global rank, Israel is placed at 172th position out of 180 listed nations, having 91.29 cubic meters of renewable internal freshwater resources per capita in 2014. Uzbekistan, as noted above, ranks at 152nd in that same measure and Tashkent arguably has much better relations with its neighbors than Israel does. A vast area of Israel has a drier climate and less precipitation during winter than Uzbekistan.
But Israel, unlike Uzbekistan, has successfully modernized its irrigation techniques to mitigate its water scarcity issues. Seth Siegel, author of the best-selling book Let There Be Water, noted that Netafim, an Israeli company which manufactures drop irrigation technology, says the technique “saves 25%-75% pumped water compared to flood, on average.”
Siegel continued: “So, the farmer uses less water, fertilizer and sometimes pesticides, and is happy. Aquifers suffer less chemical pollution. The crops yield more (about 15%, say Netafim and some experts) and food prices drop, so the consumer is happy.”
By applying these technologies, Uzbekistan could ease the burden on water resources drawn from of the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya. Tashkent could also tackle the problem of salinization of soil, which is threatening Uzbek agriculture.
Israel’s technological and agricultural progress was possible due to business opportunities ensured by the government. The private sector is very important for a number of reasons, primarily innovation and motivation to maximize results while minimizing costs. New ideas often come from the private sector. Furthermore, the motivation of businesses to maximize profits also means they try to minimize expenses and waste.
The Uzbek government has a role to play in allowing the space needed for private sector innovation and providing adequate guarantees for investors, thereby drawing them into sustainable development initiatives in the country. Sustainable development in the water sector can go hand-in-hand with job creation and attention to the environment, two other key priority areas. People in rural areas, like in the Aral region, need jobs and the region itself needs environmental rehabilitation. The government needs to understand this dynamic and link protecting the environment with the creation of 21st century jobs.
Mirziyoyev realizes that more needs to be done to address the country’s water challenges before they become a permanent crisis. Mirziyoyev’s positive official agenda brings hope for greater regional cooperation. Border demarcation and demining, the opening of more checkpoints to increase trade and people flows, increasing the number and routes of transport logistics, liberalization of the visa regime, and creation of new Silk Way visa regime between the Central Asian countries all underscore Uzbekistan’s push for regional cooperation.
In 20th century Europe, coal and steel mines were one of the main sources of conflicts between Germany and France. Fortunately, unlike in Europe, there has not been any armed conflict in the Central Asian region over water, although Uzbekistan’s first president made military threats in the past. At present, it may seem that Tashkent and Dushanbe have “no remaining unresolved issues,” but the fundamental problem of water mismanagement in Uzbekistan remains. Given climate change, water will increasingly become a scarce resource in the region in the not so-distant future. And the odds of conflict in Central Asia, while appearing low in light of the recent explosion of regional cooperation efforts, are far from zero.
Tashkent can lead the Central Asian republics in deepening cooperation on the management of water resources on a more sustainable and lasting basis. Perhaps in the future, a Central Asian supranational organization managing water, based on the experience of the European Community of Coal and Steel, the precursor organization of today’s European Union, will become a forum to mitigate water disputes in the region. In the meantime, Uzbekistan has to change its outdated water management systems by implementing new reforms and adopting modern technologies.
Aziz Egamov is a graduate student at Georgetown University. He specializes in the energy and geopolitics of Eurasia.