Transboundary Rivers in Central Asia: Geography, Geopolitics and Hydro Diplomacy


The strategically significant Central Asian region, which feeds by two historically important river systems- Amu Darya and Syr Darya with credible hydrocarbon and oil resources, is quite often attracts theories of 'resource conflict', 'water war' and 'great game'. However, cooperative management on strategic rivers to cater to the needs of riparian countries remains an unresolved issue.  Presently, the UN is organising a two days (August 20-21) High-Level International Conference on Water Cooperation (HLICW) in Dushanbe, Tajikistan. Will UN sponsored Conference encourage Central Asian countries to accelerate resolving the elusive water cooperation along Amu Darya and Syr Darya Rivers?


With the backdrop of US led NATO force withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014, the international focus has squarely been put on potential water problems in the region. On July 25, the US Congressional House Subcommittee of Europe, Eurasia, and Emerging Threats hold a hearing on the 'emerging threat of resource wars' in Central Asia. Interestingly, US government official were not testified.  On July 15, the Security Council issued a statement on UN's role on preventive diplomacy to defuse regional and bilateral disputes in Central Asia. Meanwhile, European Union (EU) Council adopted its commitment on water diplomacy for Central Asia region among others at its Foreign Affairs Council meeting on July 22.  


As 2013 declared by UN as 'International year of Water Cooperation’, Tajikistan, an upper riparian country, is hosting the Conference. At the UN, Tajikistan has been leading from front by putting transboundary water issue into UN's priority agenda, as in 2003 declaring International Year of water, Decade of Water for Life (2005-2015) and 2013 as water cooperation year. While making every effort at UN to highlight the grave water situation, Tajikistan's effort in forging regional cooperation has been negligible.  


Perception and dependency on rivers in the region varies among riparian countries. While Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, upper riparian countries (Water Towers), seek harnessing hydropower to meet domestic energy demands for all seasons; Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan as lower riparian countries squarely depend for irrigation.  The geographical positioning of countries is adding more difficulties to forging a common but accepted solution to transboundary water dispute. By zeroing in, it is the fertile Fergana valley, its massive irrigation facilities, legacy of Stalin's whimsical demarcation of borders with overlapping ethnicity, is the bone of contention spilling and fuelling as regional water complexities.    


Functioning under coercive centralised Moscow to distribute energy and irrigation demand, suddenly in 1991, the intra rivers of the Central Asia become international rivers. Compelled with geographical limitations and uncertainties of unhindered energy production and water flow for irrigation as well as vivid example of drying Aral Sea, countries signed an agreement on 'cooperation in joint management, use and protection of transboundary water resources' in line with 'Panchsheel'. Consequently, Interstate Commission for Water Coordination (ICWC) was established in 1992 as a regional structure to address the complexity of water and energy on transboundary rivers. Immediate Post-Soviet compulsions and voluntarism had fast vanished among countries to uphold the ICWC on the face of growing domestic demand, fluctuating and volatile barter system for energy needs; and unilateral ambition of right to development. Even after its two decades of existence, ICWC is not a legal enforceable institution.


Meanwhile, international treaties, frameworks and declarations on transboundary water have negligible impact on Central Asian countries due to its unique regional, geographical and economic complexities. The less hyped and much talked 1997 UN Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses is almost dysfunctional due to the adamant nature of upper riparian countries. The Central Asian countries have predictable reservations on its provisions which resulted in only signing of Uzbekistan (2007) till date.


To substitute this General Assembly adopted least legally binding 1997 Convention, in November 2012, the UN Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) 'Convention on Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lake (1992)' has made open to all UN member countries to sign and ratify for lessening the friction on shared river water. Similarly, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan are parties to the 1992 Convention as the lower riparian countries. However, the UNECE as a regional institution has potential to intervene in resolving the regional water and energy complexities.      


Ineffective regional conflict resolution mechanism has allowed countries entered into bilateral agreements to protect their interests. In 2000, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan agreed on consumptive use of the Chu River and Talas River. In July, villagers of Kok-Say in Kyrgyzstan’s Talas Region blocked water flow to Kazakhstan for 10 days by affecting irrigation of 4000 hectares of adjacent land in Kazakhstan.  With timely intervention of both countries' leadership, the situation was diffused on July 17, 2013. Interestingly, in June 2013, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, both lower riparian countries, signed a strategic agreement in Tashkent which emphasizes development of 'fair system of water management' including construction of hydropower structures. This is the result of growing Russian renewed support for construction of hydropower in upper Naryn River (a major tributary of Syr Darya River) in Kyrgyzstan. Since 2007, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have been jointly managing transboundary Isfara and Khodzha-Bakirgan River through inter-ministerial working group.


Despite recently growing truncated concepts of water-energy-food nexus focusing on and maximising exploitation of transboundary rivers, the Central Asian rivers are only such examples to rationalise these nexus. Prevailing views against large dams across Southern Hemisphere has not deterred acceptance of construction of hydropower for dire need of energy by both leaders and citizens in Central Asia. Barring Uzbekistan's opposition to large dams, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have been pursuing ambitious hydro-electricity production.


International financial institutions such as World Bank and Asian Development Bank with battery of bilateral agencies like USAID, GTZ, SDC, Chinese EXIM Bank and countries like China, Russia and India have been engaged in extending their support in resolving water and energy problems. The rehabilitation of existing hydropower plants and their feasibility impact studies taken by World Bank on Rogun Hydropower (Tajikistan) and ADB on Toktogul Hydropower (Kyrgyzstan) would definitely not only help Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan to increase their energy production but remove the apprehensions of Uzbekistan on downstream impact. 


The problem lies in the quantum of water flow in specific season throughout the river systems from Tian Shan and Pamir Mountains to Aral Sea with maximising production of hydropower and protecting irrigation in downstream countries. In addition, fast melting of glaciers from Water Towers and increasing water disasters, Central Asian countries needs to be rethinking their hydro-politics and hydro-diplomacy.


From harnessing and facilitating other renewable energy sources, diversification of water intensive cropping system, rehabilitate existing hydropower plants and minimising inherent corruption must be taken into account in the atmosphere of trust building and uninterrupted sharing of information across the region. Other difficult choices such as 'balancing reservoir' or 'dynamic storage' or downstream 'cascading power system' must be discussed among riparian countries to effectively resolve irrigation demand and energy production.  With its financial clout and cutting edge technological advantage, the UNCEC must be considered as Secretariat to negotiate, monitor, implement and enforce any transboundary water and energy framework in the region. 

Author Note
Avilash Roul (Ph. D.), Senior Fellow, Society for the Study of Peace and Conflict, New Delhi