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The disaster of the Aral Sea and the risk of new water wars


The threat posed by new water wars to the stability of the region is not only a political issue, but also involve social, economic and environmental elements

Vincenzo D'Esposito Vincenzo D'Esposito

Water scarcity poses a serious threat to Central Asia. The former Soviet Union and the current five post-Soviet republics have developed a water-intensive economic model. It relies on fresh water for agriculture and energy, having led to the dissipation of an enormous amount of this precious resource. The disaster of the Aral Sea and the threat posed by new water wars to the stability of the region are not only a political issue, but also involve social, economic and environmental elements.

The water-energy nexus

Central Asia is one of the leading cotton producing regions in the world. Its flat terrain is suitable for agriculture and its dry climate helps cotton growth. Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan rely on large canals to supply their fields, receiving water mainly for agricultural purposes. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, on the other hand, benefit from hydroelectric power plants installed on their dams to obtain energy, since they have not inherited large oil or gas fields in their borders.

The complementarity between the upstream and downstream countries with regard to the use of water resources has led to the establishment of a water-energy nexus. In winter, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan accumulated water in their dams and released it in the summer, helping the agriculture of the downstream countries. In the same way, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan transferred fuel and energy in winter to the upstream countries, while purchasing the hydroelectric surplus that the latter generated in the summer with the release of water from the dams. This nexus was broken in 1992 by the Alma Ata Agreement, stating that the quotes of water for each republic adopted in the Soviet era had to be respected, without including a similar provision for the energy transfer to the upstream countries.

Geopolitics of scarcity in Central Asia

In this region, where water resources are shared among different countries, cooperation is crucial. However, for more than two decades the five Central Asian states have conducted nationalistic and chauvinistic policies, isolating their countries. In particular, Uzbekistan’s isolation has been the key problem in the Aral Sea issue, since it has the control over canals and dam releases. This particular situation, where a downstream nation exert indirect control over the water releases from upstream nations, is called hydro-hegemony. The hydro-hegemon is interested in maintaining its favorable situation, avoiding any attempt by the hegemonised countries to change the balance of power.

Shared resources and borders hard to cross have created an explosive mixture in one of the driest regions of the world. Access to water is crucial, but for people living near the borders it is sometimes problematic, due to political issues. Furthermore, the presence of numerous enclaves in Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan poses another threat to the stability of the region. Frequent border clashes between civilians and military forces have led to international crises, as it happened in 2021 between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. The clash was caused by the difficult accession to a water distribution facility on the Isfara river, a tributary of the Syr Darya. It involved both civilians and military, quickly escalating into a full-scale confrontation with rockets and tanks. Although it deescalated after a few days, this was the first real war between Central Asian countries.

A zero-sum game

The water-energy nexus in Central Asia is a vital issue for the future of the relations between the five post-Soviet states. If this nexus is recreated, conflicts will inevitably decrease. Shared resources are a key factor in avoiding tensions or in fomenting it. After the fall of the Soviet Union the political situation worsened considerably, resulting in increased in the evaporation of the Aral Sea and border skirmishes. The cut in energy transfers to the two upstream countries generated increase in water releases in winter, with the risk of floods in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. By doing so, reservoirs could not sustain agriculture during the summer in downstream countries, and so the tension rose.

With the election of Shavkat Miriyoyev in Uzbekistan, Central Asia has seen a substantially increase in mutual trust between states. This has led to a regionalist approach to major issues, seeing in the Kazakhstan-Uzbekistan duo its promoters. Despite this, conflict remains a risk and resources dissipation is still a serious threat to the livelihoods of over 70 million inhabitants. The future of Central Asia relies on water.

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