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The Ramifications Of Water Scarcity In Central Asia

Courtesy of STRATFOR (subscription required), some commentary on the ramifications of water scarcity in Central Asia:

Lauren Goodrich: Hello, my name is Lauren Goodrich, and I’m the senior Eurasia analyst here at Stratfor. I’m joined by Rebecca Keller, Stratfor’s science and technology analyst. So Rebecca, we have been talking for years about Central Asia. Central Asia right now is currently undergoing pretty much the perfect storm of issues. It’s always had issues in the past, but we’re seeing currently the very first real economic slowdown since the fall of the Soviet Union. We’re seeing skyrocketing inflation, remittances by workers from Central Asia to Russia have been cut in half for most of the countries. And this is all taking place we have two main foundational issues that are starting to come to light in Central Asia: water scarcity and a population boom. I was hoping you could explain a little bit more about the water scarcity issue so that we can fit it into the bigger picture that we’re seeing in Central Asia.

 Rebecca Keller: Absolutely, so water scarcity or water stress in the general Central Asian region isn’t exactly new. It’s been ongoing since the Soviet Union started to utilize those countries when they were part of the USSR. Extreme exploitation for cotton farming really put a pressure on the limited resources that were there. And essentially, the Aral Sea became the poster child for water mismanagement, losing 90 percent of its area or water over the course of the second half of the 20th century.

Lauren: Which is something I’ve seen when I was in the region and which you can actually see where the water has stripped the soil completely of every nutrient, especially when I was in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan there was just no hope for the lands to be used any longer.

Rebecca: Absolutely, and so that stripping of the land is not just the Aral Sea. The continued farming of the region… Uzbekistan, where their cotton farming is still fairly strong, is also pushing to increase its wheat production. And in order to get yields, increase yields, they have to irrigate, which puts further pressure on the water. And this just over-farming of the land has really decreased the soil quality as well, which only requires more water – it’s sort of a circular problem that they just can’t get out of without outside help.

Lauren: But there are a series of projects planned by the Central Asia states that are simply just going to make things worse, right?

Rebecca: Absolutely. One of them that sort of comes to mind is the Golden Age Lake, and that’s a project in Turkmenistan, where they’re going to, or they’re in the process of constructing canals to divert some of the water from the Amu Darya, which feeds into what used to be the Aral Sea, and create this lake to support the economy of that region. The problem being, they are going to pull water from a lake — and forgive my pronunciation here – but the Sarygamysh Lake on the Uzbek-Turkmen border. And that you know is just going to create more conflict. And I remember talking to you: That population is not a population you want to aggravate.

Lauren: Two regions, there is two Uzbek western regions that actually have increased in size by 55 percent since the fall of the Soviet Union, and one of the regions is actually a separatist region that has autonomy. So this wouldn’t even be an issue between the Uzbek government and the Turkmen government, which it will also be, but it will also be a separatist issue in which you could potentially have a population rise up against losing their water resources.

Rebecca: Absolutely. And we talk about population being an added pressure. So which areas of the region are we looking at as far as population pressures to overlay these water pressures?

Lauren: Well over all, the size of the population in Central Asia has pretty much, on average, doubled since the fall of the Soviet Union, but two regions that we are very specifically focusing on: The one in western Uzbekistan that we were talking about that feeds into those Turkmen projects, but also the populations in southern Kirgizstan, western Tajikistan, eastern Uzbekistan and southern Kazakhstan, all that kind of form around the Fergana Valley itself, in which those populations have such a very small space in which to live. Stratfor has been hearing for quite a long time in which the populations in southern Kyrgyzstan and eastern Tajikistan… there’s no housing, there’s no land to actually farm on right now because there are just too many people. And so you have multiple families living in apartments, you know all together. And these are the populations that are continuing to boom, are we are going to continue to see a rise, according to the United Nations. So when you overlay the water issue with that, that’s what I’m particularly concerned with. So what projects are taking place in say around the Fergana region?

Rebecca: So the Rogun Dam has recently gotten the green light for funding; it’s uncertain where the money is going to come from right now, but….

 Lauren: And this is the dam in Tajikistan?

Rebecca: It’s in Tajikistan, right. So it’s not necessarily directly in the Fregana Valley, but it’s another… you have the upstream countries that control the water resources and the downstream countries of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, which control the hydrocarbon resources, and so it’s in Tajikistan, they just got green lit for funding, and so that is probably going to aggravate the situation again. Again, it’s just, I want to call it, a powder keg of potential unrest.

Lauren: And we’re already seeing Uzbekistan, who is the country that is really going to be hit the most from all these projects. Whether it’s from Kirgizstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, it’s Uzbekistan that is going to hurt the most. And we’ve already seen them respond. They’ve been very vocal in that they will not stand by while they’re water resources are taken away. So this past year we had Uzbekistan cut off natural gas to Kirgizstan for eight months, we’ve had natural gas and electricity issues between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan quite a bit, and then Uzbekistan is cutting off things like visas to Tajiks. And so this is turning into much more a political issue. The biggest concern is will it turn into a military issue? Uzbekistan has hinted that should the dam, such as the Rogun Dam, or any of the dams in Kirgizstan actually take a step forward and start construction then Uzbekistan has the right to militarily intervene. At least that is the next step that they see taking within the next few years. So as you said, it sounds like a powder keg. Thank you so much Rebecca.

Rebecca: Thank you

This entry was posted on Monday, August 17th, 2015 at 10:17 am and is filed under Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  Both comments and pings are currently closed. 

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