Foreign Policy Blogs

Central Asia's most important natural resource. . .

. . . . is water, although one wouldn't think so by the amount of ink and electrons we spend on hydrocarbon disposition.

Tajik Hydropower, 2001First, you have to have water to drink, wash, and grow crops; potable water is also required for reliable manufacture of pharmaceutical, cleaning, and other chemical products.  Agriculture employs most of the people in Central Asia and represents in all states a significant part of GDP.  In a region that is aird desert with some rivers, water regimes have always been paramount.  Yet, since 1991, the history of Central Asian water regimes has reinforced the waste of water and unfair dealings by downstream states, who gain the water, and yet rely upon the upstream states to build the infrastructure. 

Trouble in River City
Now that upstream states have investors for upstream projects, who want return for investment, there's going to be trouble in Central Asia's riverine regimes.  For one thing, over time and right now, there will be less water available for all functions for which it seems useful.  And as upstream states develop self-help, downstream states cannot rely on state dysfuntion to gain them unpaid benefits.

According to Itar-Tass on August 28, Tajikistan's president Rakhmon has informed his citizens to prepare for a cold winter, because water levels have decreased this year and the energy hydropower is not forthcoming.  You can bet that if water does increase in output, Tajikistan will be diverting quite a bit of it for power generation in order to increase its ability to develop a viable economy.  Of course, then it does go downstream to Uzbekistan like before, but once all this hydropower investment is made, the water courses are more manageable and can be controlled from upstream. 

In the absence of upstream water management, Uzbekistan sometimes had to contend with flooding, but in general the state did not have to take care of its relationship to Tajikistan in order to get water downstream.  Now Mr. Karimov is going to have to make nice:  well, it's never too late to learn how, is it?

Specifically, Uzbekistan's greater power in the we-provide-utilities-and-you-provide-water arrangement is going to change:  in the past, Mr. Karimov could turn the valves on a pipeline any time he wanted to protest a neighbor states’ behavior or policy.  For instance, after the Andijan Massacre in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan held tight to international law and refused to expel Andijan refugees from their country.  Mr. Karimov took immediate revenge on Kygyzstan's poor by cutting off lack fuel from Uzbekistan that winter. 

Now, the Kyrgyz republic pays for part of the energy it gets from Uzbekistan and barters water for the rest.   But as Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan become energy independent, Mr. Karimov's leverage dwindles.  Furthermore, as Tajikistan (and maybe even Kyrgyzstan) begins to export energy and manage water, the power not only equalizes but tips in the other direction.

If you don't give, you don't get:
Therefore, Mr. Karimov's rather sulky statements during the SCO Summit about water control has some people speculating over future water spats, which could also include military actions (they certainly have done so in the past).  Mr. Karimov, according to Jamiyat at, told the assembled heads of state that “you have all forgotten the Aral Sea”.

This is not an accurate statement, considering that Kazakhstan has invested in trying to bring the North Aral back to health.  On the other hand, Uzbekistan may not have forgotten but has certainly ignored the plight of the Aral Sea.  It may not have forgotten but has certainly ignored the numerous experts who have tried to achieve sustainable water regimes in the area.  In general, Uzbekistan has been one of the spoilers of every sustainable program–not alone, mind you–but consistently. 

Uzbekistan's power as the regional center
With all of the dam improvements and hydropower installations going in upstream, the balance of power between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan is also undergoing a sea change.  In the past, all water cooperation regimes in Central Asia were like the ICWC, (Interstate Commission on Water Conservation), that is headquartered in Uzbekistan. 

When all of the Aral Sea Basin states were cooperating, at least nominally, then Uzbekistan's central location made this a reasonable idea.  However,  as seems perennial in Uzbekistani relations, this position of power rarely resulted in acknowledgement of other stakeholders, and (as already noted)  nearly never to upstream stakeholders.  Since Tajikistan has been forced to take this problem into its own hands, Uzbekistan's hard-line stance has not paved the way for future cooperation–that is, if there is enough water to be had.

The legitimizing factors
When it comes to diverting water, upstream states do have some power, but it is heavily curtailed by international law.  The UN Right to Water notes, and many court cases, have ruled on this issue: along riverine watersheds, all states have a legal stake in the disposition of the water.  Generally, the advantage goes to downstream states because they are usually more greatly populated and have more industry and agriculture (think deltas instead of mountains).  But it will be a very new question when there is not enough water to support life upstream in the mountains as well as down in the flatlands.

Again, Mr. Karimov has not kept the legal high ground.  Not only has water management been lax, but energy needs and exchanges for water between Uzbekistan and upstream states have always been used by Uzbekistan to punish upstream water providers.  Since Uzbekistan regularly cuts of fuel supplies in the winter, whether for non-payment of bills by its less-rich neighbors, it can hardly claim a humanitarian outlook on resource-sharing. 

If Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan cannot depend upon energy supplies or water infrastructure cost-sharing from Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan, then they may well argue in international court that they are obliged to provide these commodities for themselves.  This strengthens all hydropower investment claims on their part and leaves Uzbekistan low and dry.

So, hey.  The shoe's on the other foot.  Or, Mr. Karimov is waiting for the second shoe to drop.  Or, maybe, he is going to have to depend upon a mercy from those to whom he has not shown any.  Yeah, that last one: that's the one.

But however just or fair this may sound, in the end it's the people who suffer: all of them.  And these kind of disputes are just one harbinger of the new resource wars and disputes of the future: when in Central Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, and the American West, there is not enough water in all the places that need it.  It's water: it's more important than any other resource on earth to sustain life and build economies.  It just doesn't get as much ink or as many electrons. . . for now.

  • Dear Bonnie,

    I am so glad you brought up this issue of water resources.

    It is a sore spot for Tajikistan, which needs to develop, but finds itself at odds with its weird and overly closed neighbor.

    I am not quite sure how to interpret UN Rights to water notes… It is obvious that all states should have rights to the disposition water, but the question is in proportion of these very rights.

    The fact that downstream states (with potentially more agriculture and industry) get preference discriminates against upstream states which want to develop. The situation gets really

  • … really ugly when we look at what's happening between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

    Here is the catch22:
    Uzbekistan does not want to sell its energy to Tajikistan. Tajikistan has to develop its own capacity to produce it. The only economically viable way it could do it is by building hydro power plants. That gives Tajikistan greater control over water resources which in turn makes the dictator next door nervious.

    UN rights to water also favors the status quo… What if Tajikistan wanted to develop at a higher rate and need more energy? Would we still be required to support a state downstream at our own expense? How binding are these UN Rights to Water? Is Tajikistan party to these resolutions? How likely is UN to rule in favor of Uzbekistan should such a litigation occur?

    How credible can Uzbekistan be anyway considering country's poor human right record?

    This can be quite ridiculous. It appears we can't use the only resource we have to our advantage? How about all oil-rich countries sharing their oil money with their less fortunate neighbors then?

    My take is that if we need the energy we should have it. Dictating Tajikistan how to reallocate it's resources is meddling in the country's souvereignity.

  • bboyd

    Dear Sylon,
    International law in all cases messes with a country's sovereignty to some degree, just as all domestic law messes with an individual's ability to do whatevery he wants to do.

    The right to water is a human right which essentially means, in this case, that Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are stuck at least providing water to make sure that children don't die of thirst. Yeah, the Catch that you note is Exceedingly real. The international case law precedents, for the most part, are between countries where the word ‘desert’ doesn't apply.

    In the future legal conflict that Tajikistan is looking at for water rights, careful documentation of every non-humanitarian slight by Uzbekistan in regard to energy is required. Then, those state lawyers of Tajikistan need a careful documentation of all the largesse that Tajikistan has displayed. It will have a tendency to legitimize whatever action Tajikistan plans to take later in order to keep its own citizens from being in thirst, in the cold, or economically stagnant. In the case of a legal threat, the answer will be something like this:
    a. of course TAjikistan does not want Uzbekistan to suffer.
    b. of course we plan to provide water.
    c. of course Uzbekistan has not considered the humanitarian needs of our citizens. . . (that super long list of Uzbekistan's energy/humanitarian violations)
    d. but of course we don't want the people to suffer.

    Then Tajikistan can start squabbling over how much water Uzbekistan can plan on receiving. The case law precedents have to be shown not to apply. and in such a case, it would be very helpful to get the support of various African states that are upstream states in riverine systems in that continent, because they are in the same position as Tajikistan–unable to develop because it hurts others downstream.

    Thanks for writing in.

  • Azik

    The only way out of these disputes is to make an equal solution, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan & Turkmenistan exchanges oi and gas+electricity on Tajikistan’s and Kyrgyzstan water…