Crossroads Asia

Japan’s Role in Healing the Aral Sea and Engaging Central Asia

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Crossroads Asia | Environment | Central Asia

Japan’s Role in Healing the Aral Sea and Engaging Central Asia

Tokyo is a quiet but important partner to Central Asia, with notable engagement on projects related to the Aral Sea.

Japan’s Role in Healing the Aral Sea and Engaging Central Asia
Credit: Depositphotos

Multiple international actors have become involved in helping Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan alleviate the devastating consequences of one of the worst human-made environmental disasters across the Central Asian region: the loss of the Aral Sea. One notable partner in these endeavors is Japan. The East Asian nation has a long history of interactions with Central Asia, and its role in environmental cooperation – specifically, in terms of healing the Aral Sea – warrants further discussion due to its potential implications for future Japan-Central Asia relations, particularly with Astana and Tashkent.

What Is Japan Doing?

The Aral Sea used to be the fourth largest saltwater lake in the world, but misguided Soviet irrigation policies initiated in the 1960s gradually dried it out, leaving the sea at just 10 percent of its original volume. The impacts of this disaster encompass elevated health-related issues in local communities, ecological damage via the loss of marine species and salt and chemical build-up, and the loss of economic livelihoods due to the devastation of commercial fishing and tourism. 

Japanese and international organizations have embarked on numerous projects to heal the Aral Sea and the surrounding environment. In September 2023, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) announced a $2 million pledge sponsored by the Japanese government. The project focuses on sharing innovative agricultural techniques with communities in Karakalpakstan, an autonomous republic in Uzbekistan bordering the Aral Sea, to adapt more effectively to desertification and climate change. 

The Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) has pursued recent projects in the Aral Sea region, such as developing climate-resistant agricultural practices and improving medical services. Tokyo has previously provided financial resources to other Aral Sea projects in Uzbekistan, including a $3 million governmental aid allocation to improve the living standards for Aral Sea communities in 2019.

Compared to Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan has received less assistance. According to the JICA-Kazakhstan webpage, the two governments stopped technical cooperation in 2012 but continue to promote language and cultural exchanges. However, other Japanese-affiliated organizations still play a role in the country’s Aral Sea alleviation efforts. In September 2023, the Executive Board of the International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea in Kazakhstan (EB IFAS) met with representatives of the “Roots and Grasses” program, an initiative associated with the Embassy of Japan in Kazakhstan. Both organizations have collaborated on projects involving the growth and protection of resilient plants and tree species.

Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Japan are also all participants in the Multi-Partner Human Security Trust Fund for the Aral Sea Region, a U.N.-affiliated initiative seeking to “mobilize technical and financial resources for the development of the [Aral Sea] region” by cooperating with multiple stakeholders. 

Furthermore, Japanese academic institutions have extensively studied the Aral Sea. Naoki Nihei, a UNDP strategic partnership adviser with extensive experience in Central Asia, said that agricultural and environmental scientists from Kyoto University have pioneered Aral Sea research. “Country-based and international organizations, along with academic institutions, have been the main drivers in Japan’s involvement in healing the Aral Sea,” he told The Diplomat.

Why Is Japan Doing it?

Understanding Tokyo’s interest in healing the Aral Sea is an excellent way to commence a discussion about Japan’s broader Central Asia strategy. Japan is fulfilling its role as a normative power – one of Asia’s most preeminent international aid providers – and aligning itself with U.S. and European initiatives to promote liberal democratic values across Central Asia while counteracting historical Russian and rising Chinese influence. Thus, besides being a substantial Official Development Assistance (ODA) donor and facilitator of aid and infrastructure development projects throughout Central Asia, the country has helped establish such programs as the Central Asia + Japan political dialogue and the Japan-Central Asia Friendship Association (JACAFA) educational and professional exchange network.

Access to Central Asia’s abundant natural resource reserves is a central factor encouraging Tokyo’s presence in the region. Given that resource-poor Japan relies on imports to fuel its energy and industrial needs, diversifying its sources by trading with Central Asia is a wise long-term decision that could help buffer future shocks and supply chain disruptions. 

Despite Japan’s promising steps toward helping to heal the Aral Sea, weak spots remain. Nihei explained that “Japanese interest to protect the environment in the Aral Sea region has been there, but not with strong political will while researchers’ interest continued.” He added that “the Japanese government sponsors ODA activities by the funds allocated to international mechanisms, such as community support projects led by the Human Security Trust Fund and UNDP.”

At a 2022 conference by the Carnegie Moscow Center about Japan-Central Asia relations, Professor Tomohiko Uyama stated that economic stagnation and reduced ODA budgets have increased Japanese companies’ aversion to investing in the relatively unfamiliar and riskier Central Asian region. Therefore, while Japan has continued to pursue routine activities in Central Asia, it has recently ceased to develop new projects.

The good news for the communities living along the Aral Sea who want to see life (and water) return is that other international donors remain involved. It is doubtful that Tokyo will have an ongoing leading role in Aral Sea-related operations. “Japan’s political engagement has gradually weakened compared with the one in the period right after the independence of Central Asian countries, and official assistance to the Aral Sea issues is limited to the support [of communities] in the region,” Nihei argued.

Many actors are involved in trying to heal the Aral Sea, although how much of it actually can be restored is an open question. Kazakhstan is heavily invested in restoring the sea, and Uzbekistan is engaged, though Tashkent’s reliance on cotton fields that strain water resources remains problematic. International actors include the UNDP, the World Bank, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and the Chinese Academy of Sciences

Moscow has also been involved in water-related projects. Perhaps as a gesture to atone for the mistakes of the Soviet Union in desertifying the Aral Sea in the first place, Moscow and Astana have created the Joint Russian-Kazakh Commission on the use and protection of transboundary water bodies. This forum met this past December to discuss transboundary rivers, including the Ural, Big, and Small Uzen, Irtysh, Tobol, Ishim, and the Kigach channels. However, it is unclear if the Aral Sea was also discussed. The Almaty-based Eurasian Development Bank has also addressed future irrigation projects around the Aral Sea.

Tokyo’s Future Role in Central Asia

Tokyo is a silent but important partner to Central Asia. Japan’s trade with the region is significant, but there is room for growth. Bilateral trade between Kazakhstan and Japan was $1.9 billion in 2022 and slightly over $3 billion in 2023, substantially lower than the over $20 billion in Kazakh-Russian trade last year. Japanese trade with Uzbekistan, meanwhile, was even less, amounting to $292 million (approximately 43 billion Japanese yen) in 2022. 

At the Carnegie conference about Japan-Central Asia relations, Professor Timur Dadabaev argued, “Japanese businesses are not necessarily interested in the Central Asian market.” He added that while Kazakhstan attracts the most significant attention from the Japanese corporate community, Japanese-led commercial and investment initiatives do not match the quantities of Russian and Chinese projects. However, Dadabaev noted that carving out niche projects and agreements in specific industries could be mutually beneficial – in his words, “quality over quantity.”

To incite more trade, a Japanese business delegation visited Kazakhstan in January; the gathering brought together “more than 200 Kazakh companies and about 60 representatives of the Japanese government and businesses” to discuss digital transformation and green transformation.

Looking to the future, ample alternatives exist for greater engagement between Japan and Central Asia. Tokyo’s interest in Central Asian rare earths, critical minerals, and green energy development are areas for future partnerships. In January 2024, Kazakh Minister of Energy Almasadam Satkaliev and Japanese Minister of Economy, Trade, and Industry Saito Ken signed a memorandum of cooperation on low-carbon development and energy transition. Saito also signed a memorandum with Uzbek Minister of Energy Jurabek Mirzamahmudov regarding economic cooperation and energy transitions. 

The Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Diplomatic Bluebook 2023 highlights how Tokyo wants to “strengthen bilateral ties… through high level talks and will… promote regional cooperation using the framework of the ‘Central Asia plus Japan” Dialogue,” though the scope and logistics for such activities are still being developed. 

Japan’s role in the Aral Sea environmental crisis, while not as well known as the initiatives by other actors, is nonetheless significant. Academic research and donations to help local communities are certainly noteworthy. However, it is unlikely that this role will increase, given Tokyo’s limited political interests. Nevertheless, work regarding the Aral Sea helps Tokyo maintain a positive presence in Central Asia that does not appear threatening to other regional powers (e.g., Beijing and Moscow). 

Whether Japan has a grand strategy for the future of Japan-Central Asian relations is debatable. Trade activity does exist, and Tokyo would like access to Central Asia’s vital energy resources, including rare earths and critical minerals, which is another unifying link besides the Aral Sea. Future iterations of the Central Asia + Japan Dialogue could achieve a diplomatic breakthrough to elevate interactions and develop a blueprint for the future of Japan’s partnership with Central Asia as a whole, and with Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in particular.