Kyrgyzstan & Kazakhstan: Water Dispute Highlights Potential for Conflict
A water and land dispute between villagers living on the border between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan has been smoothed over after the governments in Astana and Bishkek were forced to intervene.A canal which Kyrgyz villagers had blocked for 10 days, plugging the flow of water to farmers on the Kazakh side of the border, has been re-opened, Kyrgyzstan’s Kabar news agency reports. The water supply was restored on July 17, after Astana sent an official protest letter to Bishkek. Some 50 or 60 inhabitants of the village of Kok-Say in northwestern Kyrgyzstan’s Talas Region stopped the flow of water on July 7, demanding that a 2,600-hectare parcel of land ceded to Kazakhstan in a border agreement back in 2001 be returned to Kyrgyzstan (which was allocated a different plot of land the same size in exchange).With several villages in Zhambyl Region in southeastern Kazakhstan cut off from water and farmers unable to irrigate some 4,000 hectares of land, the governments stepped in. Astana urged Bishkek to act fast to restore the flow, and “not permit such unilateral actions in future,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Nurzhan Aytmakhanov said in remarks broadcast by Kazakhstan’s KTK TV on July 16. The Kazakh prime minister, Serik Akhmetov, got on the phone to his Kyrgyz counterpart, Zhantoro Satybaldiyev, to step up the pressure to get the water flowing along the 13-kilometer canal into Kazakhstan’s Zhambyl Region. Bishkek got the message, sending Deputy Prime Minister Tokon Mamytov and a parliamentary commission to mediate while Kyrgyzstan’s law-enforcement bodies opened a criminal case on charges of vigilantism. On July 18 official Kyrgyz and Kazakh sources confirmed that the water flow along the 13-kilometer canal had been restored the previous evening.Border tensions between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, which generally enjoy good relations, are relatively rare – unlike among other countries in the region. Incidents occur quite frequently between Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan, particularly in the fraught and densely populated Fergana Valley, where the Soviet Union left a legacy of unclear borders. This Kazakh-Kyrgyz row seems to have been resolved for now, but it highlights the potential for conflict among Central Asian neighbors competing for scarce land and water resources.
Joanna Lillis is a journalist based in Almaty and author of Dark Shadows: Inside the Secret World of Kazakhstan.
Sign up for Eurasianet's free weekly newsletter. Support Eurasianet: Help keep our journalism open to all, and influenced by none.