In the Soviet era, water allocations for Central Asia were set in Moscow (at the Ministry for Land Reclamation and Water Resources, or Minvodkhoz). State planners' aim was to maximize cotton yields. Currently, each river basin has its own BVO (the Russian acronym for Water Basin Commission) governed by a board with representatives from each country, which makes collective decisions about water use. The collective decision-making process, however, is hampered by the new states' unwillingness to submit to a supranational authority.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, water usage, which had previously been a domestic issue, suddenly became a subject of international mediation. A zero-sum game developed over water, and each republic enshrined the concept of "sovereignty over resources" in its national constitution. As the water moves downstream, both its quantity and quality decrease, causing a rise in tension among states in the region. The fertilizer runoff and leaching salts passed downstream from one farmer to the next culminates in the toxic delta in Karakalpakistan, the semiautonomous republic littoral to the Aral Sea.
The root of the problem lies in the region's Soviet legacy. In the 1920s and 1930s, the Soviets redrew the map of Central Asia, creating five titular republics. This arrangement disrupted the region's natural watershed by dividing the courses of the Amu Darya and Syr Darya into upstream and downstream areas. With independence, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan -- the weakest politically and economically -- inherited most of the dams and reservoirs in the system and control the headwaters. The water-dependent nations of Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan lie downstream. During the Soviet era these countries' economies focused on cotton production.
Mountainous Kyrgyzstan, which has no natural gas and oil reserves like its downstream neighbors, considers water its new currency. President Askar Akaev signed an edict in October 1997 codifying Kyrgyzstan's right to profit from water resources within its territories. Kyrgyzstan has demonstrated a clear intent to follow through on its plans. It has threatened to sell water to China if Uzbekistan refuses to pay. It has also demanded compensation for revenues lost from releasing water downstream to Uzbek farms instead of using it to generate hydroelectric power.
Kyrgyzstan's actions have not sat well with Uzbekistan, the region's political heavyweight. While swap deals -- gas and cotton for water -- and bilateral treaties have so far averted crises, they have not solved the issue in the longer term. But even if the political leaders reach a settlement, lasting changes will only occur when local farmers start using water more efficiently. So far, the governments seem content to subsidize agriculture rather than privatizing land, a move that would lessen the ability of political leaders to control the population.
Uzbekistan has often exacerbated regional tension by not hesitating to act in a unilateral manner. In July 1997, the country cut off 70 percent of flow downstream, threatening 100,000 hectares and prompting a riot by Kazakh farmers. Moreover, it has deployed 130,000 troops on the Kyrgyz border to guard the reservoirs straddling the two countries.
Thusfar, the most serious consequence of water mismanagement in Central Asia is the catastrophe of the Aral Sea. The Soviet installation of a cotton monoculture in the region required massive water withdrawals from the two rivers. As a result, the rivers dry up long before they reach the Aral's shore, causing what was the world's fourth largest lake in 1960 to shrink by more than half its size. The shift has altered weather patterns and poisoned the environment, making the Aral Sea basin "one of the world's most staggering disasters of the 20th century," according to the United Nations Environmental Program.
With independence, the new states in the region also inherited the catastrophe, known locally as the "Aral tragedy," exacerbated by a population boom and industrial growth. With short histories of statecraft and lots of bad blood between them, the Central Asian states have nonetheless made some progress.
The 1992 Water Treaty, the 1993 Kyzyl-Orda Agreement and the 1995 Nukus Declaration all pay homage to cooperation. And water administration has been revamped -- decisions once made by Minvodkhoz (Ministry of Land Reclamation and Water Resources) are now made on the local level (by regional river basin BVOs). These institutional arrangements have great potential for effective region-wide water management.
But the new framework is undermined by the BVOs' lack of funding and legal status. While the states are required to contribute to the BVOs' operating budget at a level commensurate with their river withdrawals, most of the states have shortchanged the authority so far, making only maintenance possible. Moreover, none of the states' legislatures has officially recognized the BVOs' authority, which leaves water management largely up to the states. And finally, the current water allocation levels are the same as the unsustainable levels set by Soviet central planners. Such an arrangement does nothing to relieve the overall water shortage.
Regional leaders are sending conflicting signals about their desire to resolve water-use issues. There are indications that regional leaders are growing increasingly aware of the importance of cooperation in water management. During talks held March 31, Uzbek President Islam Karimov and his Turkmen counterpart Saparmurat Niyazov described the water issue as a "most pressing topic of the current time." At the same time, Niyazov rejected an OSCE initiative in late March to convene an international conference to discuss the water issue. According to Turkmen television, Niyazov maintained that states should rely on the "own potential" and work on a bilateral level to settle water-related issues.
Central Asia has not ignited in the wide-scale resource war that some experts predicted. Early intervention -- and large side-payments -- by international donors may stave off conflict in the near term. Nevertheless, as long as the region's leaders insist on making unilateral decisions that affect their neighbors, water will remain a potential source of conflict in Central Asia.
Bea Hogan writes on Central Asian political and economic affairs.