Foreign Policy Blogs

The Aral Sea Disaster, part 4: Since 1991, some progress & plenty of hot air

As noted in part 1 of this series, the Aral Sea is the endpoint of an exotic watershed, with water-rich areas upstream and an arid downstream.  Throughout the world, exotic watersheds are usually more heavily populated downstream.  In general, international law gives downstream human security priority over upstream ownership‚ in other words, people have a right to water, and upstream states cannot divert or subvert water supply to downstream states. 

Tajikistan canal, WUATherefore, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, Central Asia's upstream states, have been saddled with the duty to provide water to its downstream neighbors.  At the same time, these downstream states have not used this water wisely.  Nor have they paid for much of the infrastructure improvement that Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, the two poorest states in Central Asia, must make.  A series of water treaties has been agreed upon and signed; all of them use approximately the same language, and none of them have been substantively followed.  Kazakhstan alone has agreed to pay for improvements in upstream states that affect their water supply; the other two states have continued their free ride.

Five-nation fidelity to a water regime is clearly necessary.  Yet, one can readily see the reasons for systemic water treaty violation.

Transition (?) Agriculture
In the 1990's, Central Asian states needed export dollars and domestic food supply.  Repairing irrigation systems was not the highest priority.  Instead, the downstream Central Asian states‚ Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan‚ intensified production of wheat, and a water-needy but valuable cash crop‚ cotton.

Neither Uzbekistan nor Turkmenistan effectively privatized land after the Soviet breakup, allowing the Soviet-style command structure for agriculture to continue.  To its environmental abuses, noted in post 2 of this series, one must add the disincentives to local farmers to make changes in crops, irrigation, or chemical use under this draconian, desperate cycle.

Furthermore, in the interests of both controlling and pacifying a population already undergoing tremendous change, few water regimes of any note were established.  International financial institutions targeted free water utilities for structural reform.  No matter how little one might pay for utility service, the expectation that one must pay (along with enforcement) tends to control waste.

Health, Grassroots, Reform: NGOs, WUAs
Kyrgyzstan WUA at workEnvironmentalists and agricultural experts have tried to reform the irrigation system in the Aral Sea Basin.  One of the most useful initiatives was bringing the concept of Water User Associations (WUAs) to irrigation and municipal utilities.  Using a community-based, stakeholder approach, locals could join with international water experts in developing ownership and care toward their water supplies.  In cities and townships, WUAs were able to target water waste, improve water quality, and increase awareness of water issues.  In rural areas, WUAs could make assessments and improvements to irrigation systems, and separate drinking water from water unfit for human consumption.  Nevertheless, the WUAs also brought locals together in a potential power structure not shared by the head of state.  As citizens were empowered by knowledge and infused with will, they could begin to analyze policies formulated above and make demands of their national leaders.  Many WUA initiatives have therefore been crushed, and many related NGOs have been disinvited, particularly from Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. 

Infrastructure and engineering
A radical approach to Central Asia's agricultural practice is clearly needed to achieve sustainable economic growth and remediate environmental abuses.  Make no mistake: such a program would be very difficult to implement.  The dollar investment to remodel and refurbish water systems remains enormous.

Turkmenistan's Kara-Kum canal requires a complete refurbishment to fix its leaks.  The canal also needs to be essentially roofed as well, to minimize evaporation loss and increase its efficiency. 

Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan: In many areas, irrigation leaks have killed the soil. Irrigation canal repair should therefore be undertaken in concert with land reclamation.   The irrigation network should be completely analyzed, and then revitalized under a phased approach.  Under a complete process, many of the canals would likely be re-sited.

Since 2000-2001 drought, Turkmenistan's Kara-Kum deserts dunes have begun to transfer at rapid rate.  Strategic desert agriculture allows soil to aggregate, rather than become increasingly fine particles of dust. 

Perhaps saddest of all, desert planting may also be the best answer for the South Aral Sea.  Rather than reconstituting the South Aral, planting a windbreak may help ameliorate the effects of windborne dust and chemicals.

A sign of hope and progress
Kazakhstan, funded by the World Bank, began work in September, 2005 to build a 13-km dam to raise the level of the North Aral.  So far, the project shows great promise, and a second tranche of the World Bank loan is now being implemented.  According to reports, 40% of the water to the North Aral has returned; the distance of the North Aral from its port city of Aralsk is no longer 100 km away, but less than 20 km away.

International law: not yet updated for climate change
Uzbekistan, with the majority of the Central Asian population, has been able to use international humanitarian considerations to garner water for itself.  When humanitarianism fails, President Karimov has in the past secured water through military means and through the threat and implementation of fuel cut-offs.  Thus, legal precedent, threats, and force have caused other Central Asian states to consider short-term practicality rather than long-term humanitarian and legal questions. 

Adding concerns of climate change make the ethics of water use far less clear:  Do Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have a right to heating fuel just as Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have a right to water?  Do Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have the right to waste the water they receive?  And if their actions threaten to desertify the region completely, doesn't the region at large have a legal interest?

Last July, the World Bank conducted a Central Asia region drought reduction seminar in Uzbekistan.  During that seminar, the World Bank representative rather dryly noted that proposing another water regime was useless, if no one intended to abide by its provisions.  It should be further noted that not all Aral Sea basin states attended. 

Water-related conflict continues: Tajikistan, in an effort to supply the utility service Uzbekistan frequently denies them, is strengthening its hydropower capacity.  Uzbekistan, fearing for its water supply, will take its contention to the European Economic Community (EURASEC) meeting on April 18.  (IWPR, 2007, April 3, link unavailable). 

Plenty of hot air:  The debate rages on, and the dust storms still traverse the Aral Sea region.

Beach et al; Micklin; two fine articles on WUAs by Kyle Wegerich (2000;2001).  See Worth Reading–Central Asia General.
Most of the World Bank's efforts on Central Asian drought mitigation can be accessed from this portal page

Photos:; Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation