The countries presented their appeals during the 8th Commission for Sustainable Development in New York, which took place from April 24-May 5. The meeting attempted to assess progress toward implementing the 1992 Rio Convention on the Environment, of which all five Central Asian states are signatories.
In a 15-page letter, Kyrgyzstan outlined the country's geographic regions and development problems, and sketched an action plan, which included improving sheep and yak herding, developing small-scale power production, harvesting forest products, and attracting more tourists to the region. Tajikistan, in a less self-referential and more concise format, made a pitch for increased international awareness of and cooperation in managing the world's fresh water resources.
Janar Aitjanova, program manager at the United Nations Development Program, said the Central Asian states have signed lots of international conventions and harmonized their national legislation to promote sustainable development. However, she added that ongoing economic hardships in the region have hampered the countries' ability to tackle environmental issues.
The Soviet environmental legacy still looms large in the region. The desiccation of the Aral Sea, caused by massive water withdrawals from feeder rivers for cotton irrigation, is the most visible environmental problem. But there are many other serious environmental issues confronting the region, including hazards prompted by deteriorating biological and chemical weapons facilities, the widespread contamination of drinking water, and soil degradation.
Freshwater is arguably Central Asia's most critical resource, and it has more often been the source of competition among states, rather than the focus of conservation. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, located in the mountains, which Tajikistan dubs "water towers" in its letter -- control the headwaters of the region's two main rivers, the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya. Downstream Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan possess vast energy deposits and possess large agricultural sectors. While Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan have hammered out agreements with Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan to swap fossil fuels for water, these represent expedient political agreements rather than a region-wide environmental program.
While governments squabble, the environment lies in the balance. Kyrgyzstan in its UN appeal said that its mountains have experienced tremendous ecological strain, threatening to unleash "various kinds of catastrophes, such as earthquakes, landslides, mud slides, erosion and soil degradation." The appeal went on to imply that Kyrgyzstan's neighbors in the fertile Ferghana Valley, rather than the mountain dwellers themselves, are responsible for the problem. "The traditional use of mountain regions only as sources of raw materials for civilizations living in the plains, and remoteness from cultural, political, and economic centers," the document says, "are destroying the traditional lifestyle and originality of the ethnic groups and peoples of mountain regions and leading to their impoverishment."
Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan clearly hope to instill a new sense of value in the region's environmental resources, but given the two countries' relative lack of political and economic clout vis-à-vis their neighbors, their proposals may amount to wishful thinking. Tajikistan calls the water issue "a cause of serious alarm at all levels: local, national, regional, and global," largely due to competing political agendas rather than real scarcity.
"Tajikistan believes that the current fresh water problems are not a result of a lack of international agreements, decisions and recommendations in this area," the document states. Indeed the Central Asian countries have signed regional cooperative agreements, including the 1995 Nukus Declaration, and international environmental conventions. But "much more effective and concerted measures, together with a much stronger political will are required at all levels to implement those decisions and action programs with a view to reversing trends which threaten to undermine the well-being and sustainable development of billions of people worldwide."
Sustainable development requires stakeholders in the system, people at the local level who are committed to the long-term health of the environment. But the trend toward authoritarianism in Central Asia, where governments are consolidating their power at the expense of human rights, undermines the ability of local constituencies to assume problem-solving responsibilities.
While Kyrgyzstan's recent political maneuvers may have may have disappointed many Western observers, the country clearly seeks to attract Western tourist dollars. It has long billed itself as the "Switzerland of Central Asia," and in this
document pointed out the country's "chains of snow-capped peaks, sky-blue lakes and swift mountain rivers and picturesque fertile valleys."
Taken together, the documents represent a symbolic step toward preserving two of Central Asia's most important natural resources, mountains and freshwater. But the countries that have made the appeal for greater environmental protection may not be the best messengers because they do not have the means make their wishes come true.
Bea Hogan is a freelance journalist
who is an expert on Central Asian political and economic affairs