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Central Asia: Water and Conflict

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Competition for water is increasing in Central Asia at an alarming rate, adding tension to what is already an uneasy region. Agriculture is the mainstay of the region's economy, and thirsty crops such as cotton and rice require intensive irrigation. Water use has increased rapidly since the Central Asian states became independent in 1991 and is now at an unsustainable level. Irrigation systems have decayed so severely that half of all water never reaches crops, and several years of drought have cut available water by a fifth even as demand continues to soar. Efforts to rebuild Afghanistan will now put yet more strain on supplies.

The problems of increasing demand and declining supplies have been compounded by the failure of the region's nations to work together. Under the Soviet Union, water and energy resources were exchanged freely across what were only administrative borders, and Moscow provided the funds and management to build and maintain infrastructure. Rising nationalism and competition among the five Central Asia states has meant they have failed to come up with a viable regional approach to replace the Soviet system of management. Indeed, linked water and energy issues have been second only to Islamic extremism as a source of tension in recent years.

An annual cycle of disputes has developed between the three downstream countries - Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan - that are all heavy consumers of water for growing cotton, and the upstream nations - Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The downstream countries require more water for their growing agricultural sectors and rising populations, while the economically weaker upstream countries are trying to win more control over their resources and want to use more water for electricity generation and farming.

Tensions focus on the two main rivers of the region that both flow to the Aral Sea - the Syr Darya from Kyrgyzstan through Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan and the Amu Darya from Tajikistan through Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. The Amu Darya and its tributaries form part of the border between the Central Asian states and Afghanistan.

This report identifies four key areas of tension among the Central Asia nations:

  • lack of coherent water management;
  • failure to abide by or adapt water quotas;
  • Non-implemented and untimely barter agreements and payments;
  • uncertainty over future infrastructure plans.

Water management has suffered from the Soviet legacy of top-down control and general rivalries between the states. The Interstate Coordinating Water Commission (ICWC) that was set up in 1992 has failed to take into account changing political and economic relations. It is an inter-governmental body with little transparency that focuses almost exclusively on the division of water. There is no representation from agricultural or industrial consumers, non-governmental organisations or other parties. Management is dominated by officials from Uzbekistan, leading to suspicions that it favours that country's national interests. This has contributed to a lack of political commitment by other countries to the commission, resulting in a serious shortage of funds. In the meantime, the individual countries have done little to contribute to the maintenance of water systems that benefit the region.

Western donors have started to develop other management systems such as the Global Environment Facility (GEF) program, in coordination with the International Fund to Save the Aral Sea (IFAS). The UN-backed Special Program for the Economies of Central Asia (SPECA) is also working on water management. However, none of these initiatives have made much headway in dealing with the key political obstacles, particularly the unwillingness of the states to cooperate.

Shortly after independence, the five countries agreed to maintain the Soviet-era quota system, but this has become unworkable. The civil war in Tajikistan and the decay of Kyrgyzstan's economy has meant that water-monitoring facilities have fallen into disrepair. Control and enforcement mechanisms no longer function and the various countries now often accuse each other of exceeding quotas. Turkmenistan is using too much water to the detriment of Uzbekistan, which in turn has been accused by Kazakhstan of taking more than its share. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan say that the three downstream countries are all exceeding quotas. Even within Uzbekistan, provinces have accused one another of using too much water.

Some of the most serious tensions have centred around barter agreements and payments. The upstream countries trade water to Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan for energy in the form of gas, coal or power. Since energy deliveries have been unreliable, Kyrgyzstan has responded by releasing more water through its hydropower dam in winter, which results in downstream flooding and less water for summer irrigation. Attempts by Kyrgyzstan to demand payment for water have been resisted by the downstream countries.

As each country has started to view the problem as a zero-sum game, it has taken steps to increase control over water, often to the detriment of the others. There is increasing uncertainty in Central Asia over plans to build new reservoirs and dams or to expand irrigation. There has been little consultation over most of these projects, leading to intensified suspicions between states. Since the fall of the Taliban in November 2001, there has been concern about the implications of efforts to rebuild agriculture in Afghanistan. Currently that country uses very little of the water from the Amu Darya but reconstruction of irrigation systems will put additional pressure on the river.

Tensions over water and energy have contributed to a generally uneasy political climate in Central Asia. Not only do they tend to provoke hostile rhetoric, but they have also prompted suggestions that the countries are willing to defend their interests by force if necessary. Uzbekistan has carried out exercises that look suspiciously like practice runs at capturing the Toktogul Reservoir. The gas shortages and winter flooding that Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan have inflicted on each other have a direct and widespread impact on the peoples of those countries and have the potential to inflame ethnic tensions in the Ferghana Valley. Competition for water can only increase, and tensions will rise unless better mechanisms are put in place to manage the problems.

A multifaceted regional approach is needed that addresses energy, agriculture and demographic aspects of water use. Thus far, emphasis has been on bilateral agreements that lack political weight and cannot resolve what is a regional problem. Management of water must be reformed to increase accountability and transparency as currently the public, NGOs and the media have little access to information or the decision-making process. Efficient water management requires quotas that are sustainable and are backed up by enforcement mechanisms and sanctions against violators. The Central Asia nations still approach the issue purely as an engineering problem rather than one of managing multiple political, social and economic factors.

There is considerable scepticism in Central Asia about foreign involvement in resolving the water issue. Donors have favoured technical rather than political solutions, and funds have been earmarked for the repair and replacement of inefficient irrigation installations. Technical solutions will only have a limited impact, however, if not accompanied by political measures.


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To The Governments Of Central Asia :

On Water Management:

1.             Reform the Interstate Coordinating Water Commission (ICWC) by:

  •  making its decision-making, budgets and policies more transparent and accountable;

  • widening participation by including water users associations and NGOs;

  • broadening the mandate from water division to include agricultural and energy issues;

  • providing it with powers to enforce quotas, close facilities and impose sanctions; and

  • Reforming the management structure to make it more representative of country-members.

2.             Enhance the monitoring capacity of the ICWC by:

  • granting visa-free access to all officials to all member states;

  • expanding funding for monitoring equipment, particularly automated systems; and

  • providing diplomatic status for officials to limit pressures on them from local authorities.

3.             Reform the Basin Water-Management Authorities (BWAs) for the Amu Darya and Syr Darya by:

  • giving them authority to enforce quotas;

  • making them more inclusive;

  • changing senior management structures to reduce suspicions of Uzbek dominance.

4.             Negotiate an agreement on payments for infrastructure maintenance that takes into account:

  •  the burden on upstream countries to maintain dams and reservoirs; and

  •  the urgent need to improve water productivity in downstream nations.

5.             Draft national water codes and support the expansion of local water users associations as a way to:

  •  introduce new technology;

  • reduce consumption;

  • maintain existing infrastructure; and

  • minimise risk of local disputes.

On Quotas:

6.             Revise existing water quotas considering:

  • current low water supplies;

  • rising demand in upstream countries;

  • the balance of water distribution within countries; and

  • the need to tackle pressing environmental problems.

On Barter Agreements:

7.             Move ahead with establishment of water and energy consortia as a way to boost regional cooperation. In particular: 

  • negotiate a new agreement on the Syr-Darya, taking into account infrastructure issues, and moving towards monetary exchanges; and

  • negotiate a similar agreement for the Amu-Darya, taking into account the energy needs of Afghanistan and Tajikistan .

8.             Boost trust in existing barter agreements by:

  • working out a schedule to reach agreements before energy shortages in winter cause problems;

  • establishing a monitoring and adjudication system for barter deals; and

  • improving infrastructure to deliver gas.

9.             Move towards market pricing for water and energy to allow fairer exchanges, and recognise the diverging pace of economic reforms.

On Future Infrastructure:

10.         Stop construction of the Lake of the Golden Century in Turkmenistan , the reservoir system in southern Uzbekistan and the Rogun Dam in Tajikistan ; end speculation over possible diversion of Siberian rivers to Central Asia .

11.         Establish an independent regional commission to assess the impact of planned projects, and adopt a planning code of conduct to reduce tensions.

12.         Use the joint commission to come up with a common position on future water use in Afghanistan .

To International Donors:

13.         Expand funding for political and technical activities related to water, including:

  • drafting of agreements on quotas, barter agreements and infrastructure;

  • support for the formation of water and energy consortia;

  • establishment of water users associations and monitoring and environmental NGOs;

  • automated and other monitoring of water supplies;

  • water-use reduction programs;

  • local conflict prevention initiatives; and

  • research on local water management.

14.         Promote regional cooperation by:

  •  funding projects designed and implemented regionally; and

  • pressing governments to drop infrastructure projects that will harm their neighbours.

15.         Provide technical and financial help to the Central Asian states and the government in Afghanistan to work out a common position on future water use from the Amu Darya and Panj rivers.

Osh/Brussels, 30 May 2002


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