By Bekhzod Kozakov
Water has historically been one of the most valuable resources on the planet. In the river valleys where the most ancient civilizations were born, water acted as a “driving force” for human development and cooperation among people. Simultaneously, the struggle for control over water resources led to the rupture of diplomatic relations between states and sparked conflicts and wars.
For the Central Asian states, the issue of access to water has always been central and decisive. The two largest rivers, the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya, “feed life” throughout the region. Specific geographical and climatic conditions mean that land without water has never had value here. As a folk proverb says, “It is not the soil that gives birth, but the water.”
Today, more than 90% of agricultural land in Central Asia requires artificial irrigation. According to the most conservative estimates, the survival of 79.8% of the region’s population (55 million people) depends directly on access to water.
The vast majority of the region’s water resources originate in the upper reaches of rivers in Tajikistan (55.4% of the total runoff) and Kyrgyzstan (25.3%). These countries are therefore interested in using their plentiful water resources as a source of energy. However, most of the water (about 80%) is directed to agricultural needs in downstream countries: Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan. The degree of trans-boundary dependence on water resources is 42% for Kazakhstan, 77% for Uzbekistan, and 94% for Turkmenistan.
The uneven distribution of water resources and different approaches to their use has become a source of regional tensions and conflicts. The lack of consensus undermines political trust between neighboring countries and has a destructive effect on the whole system of interstate state relations. In fact, the struggle over water has served to divide the people of these states, despite their shared history and culture.
Although Uzbekistan and Tajikistan have a common border, there were no direct flights between the two countries for 25 years (they resumed in April 2017). At the peak of the water confrontation, in the first quarter of 2014, trade between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan fell by a record 90.6%, amounting to just USD$372,500. In 2013, in protest over the delimitation of the border with Kazakhstan, residents of the Talas region of Kyrgyzstan blocked the transboundary water channel Bystrotok, leaving the crops of Kazakhstan’s Zhambyl region without water. In May 2016, Bishkek announced its withdrawal from the International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea, the only regional organization in which all the founders are Central Asian states.
The excessive politicization of water and energy projects, together with the lack of a flexible approach, has exacerbated diplomatic tensions. Water, which is of central importance to the survival and wellbeing of the entire Central Asian population, has become a “stumbling-block” in the path to solving any regional problem.
The complex of unresolved issues in the region grows every year. According to World Bank forecasts, which project that the region’s population will grow to 90 million people by 2050, there is expected to be a 25-30% water deficit, a 28-35% food deficit, and a 27-35% energy deficit. At the same time, by 2020, agriculture may demand up to 30% more water for use in irrigation. The absence of a legal mechanism that would find solutions for the region’s water and energy problems by taking into account the interests of all parties and applying the principles of rationality and justice is the main reason for the deterioration of the situation.
According to the UNDP, the failure to find a universally acceptable solution to the question of water distribution is costing the region’s economies USD$1.7 billion per year. That being said, it is entirely possible to reverse this negative trend: namely, by creating a sense of common responsibility for a common future.
Uzbekistan’s new foreign policy trajectory allows for some hope about the prospects for openness. Tashkent has turned toward Central Asia and achieved a “diplomatic breakthrough” with Tajikistan, thus creating a new geopolitical environment in the region. Uzbekistan is demonstrating its willingness to “search for reasonable compromises on disputed issues with its neighbors,” an attitude that may set a new tone for regional cooperation.
It is therefore no accident that in March of this year, the UN Regional Center for Preventive Diplomacy for Central Asia sent notes to the foreign affairs ministries of all the Central Asian countries, asking them to consider draft Conventions on the use of the water resources of the Amu Darya and Syr Darya river basins. Tashkent and Astana have already supported this initiative.
How does this offer differ from previous ones? Why are all the states of the region keen to find a resolution, despite their differing positions? And why is it important not to miss this chance to settle the water dispute once and for all?
First of all, the draft Conventions are developed on the basis of the universal principles and norms of international water law, which weighs the interests of upstream and downstream countries equally. On the one hand, the drafts state that each country in the basin has the right to benefit from the use of the waters that pass through its territory. On the other hand, they stress the “obligation not to cause significant harm” to neighbors in the process (UN Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses, 1997). All provisions of the Conventions are united by the “main postulate of reasonable and equitable use.”
Secondly, this initiative is in complete agreement with world practice of resolving disputes relating to transboundary watercourses. The conflicts on the Danube in Europe, the Rio Grande and Colorado in America, the Mekong in Southeast Asia, and others were likewise resolved on the basis of multilateral agreements.
Thirdly, the proposed Conventions consolidate the work of existing mechanisms for coordinating water use activities: the Interstate Commission for Water Coordination (ICWC) and the Basin Water Organizations (BWO) Amudarya and Syrdarya. This management system has been functioning since 1992 on the basis of the Agreement on Cooperation in the Field of Joint Management of the Use and Protection of Water Resources of Interstate Sources, which was signed by all the Central Asian states. All ICWC decisions are made by consensus and are binding on the parties. The states of the region jointly consider issues such as the rational use of water resources, the construction of new hydropower facilities and the development of large tracts of irrigated lands.
Fourthly, the principle of proportional responsibility is placed at the heart of these Conventions. The costs of financing the activities of the two BWO are distributed between the parties in proportion to the volume of water they receive. In addition, taking into account the interests of the upstream countries, there will be no customs duties on any equipment for repairing and operating water and hydropower facilities.
Fifthly, the Conventions offer an effective dispute resolution mechanism. According to the document, the International Court of Justice would consider the disputed issues, and its decisions would be final and binding.
The five reasons listed above give the countries of Central Asia a unique opportunity to let go of their disagreements over water use, break their wall of distrust, and try to make up for lost time by deepening mutually beneficial regional cooperation. According to the UNDP, the rational use of water resources in Central Asia could provide economic benefits on the order of 5% of regional GDP, or USD$20 billion.
In sum, I would like to emphasize that Central Asia’s hour of truth has come. It is a test of our common ability to let go of cheap ambitions, see our true national interests, and take responsibility for current and future generations. The alternative is to be part of the growing global mistrust, controversy, and confrontation over water issues. According to the UN, there have been more than 500 water conflicts in the last 50 years alone, 20 of which have resulted in military action. Central Asia can avoid that path and find a peaceful way to build common patterns of water use.
Bekhzod Kozakov, LLM, works in Center for International Relations Studies, Tashkent, Uzbekistan