Uzbekistan Leader Warns of Water Wars in Central Asia
President Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan has upped his rhetoric against neighboring Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, warning that their efforts to build hydroelectric power stations on rivers upstream could spark war.
Speaking during an official visit to Astana on September 7, Karimov launched a broadside against Bishkek and Dushanbe, which, he said, “forget that the Amu-Darya and Syr-Darya are trans-border rivers.”
“Why do you think such questions [sharing limited international water resources] are discussed by the United Nations?” he asked in remarks quoted by Kazakhstan’s Bnews website.
It was a rhetorical question: “Because today many experts declare that water resources could tomorrow become a problem around which relations deteriorate, and not only in our region. Everything can be so aggravated that this can spark not simply serious confrontation but even wars.”
Karimov has long been a vociferous opponent of plans by Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan to complete long-stalled hydropower dam projects -- Rogun on the Vakhsh River (the headwaters of the Amu-Darya) in Tajikistan and Kambarata on the Naryn River (which becomes the Syr-Darya) in Kyrgyzstan.
Tashkent says the dams could disrupt water supplies to downstream states, adversely impacting its economy and damaging the environment. Bishkek and Dushanbe counter that they need to harness hydropower to kick-start their ailing economies.
Kazakhstan supports Uzbekistan’s position and its call for neutral international audits of plans for Rogun and Kambarata before the schemes are pushed forward, but is more restrained in its public statements.
President Nursultan Nazarbayev used Karimov’s visit to issue a carefully worded message to the leaders of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan: “To our neighbors and brothers who are ‘sitting’ on the upper reaches of these rivers, we send another ‘fraternal signal’ that we -- Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan on the Amu-Darya and Turkmenistan, located downstream -- most of all perceive the shortage of water; each person feels it, because this is their life; this is the life of millions of people.”
Nazarbayev hopes the issue will be resolved “jointly and to the advantage of all the countries” – but the chances of a swift resolution to this long-running war of words are slim. Astana’s previous calls for a regional water and energy consortium to regulate supplies have fallen on deaf ears among leaders more renowned for rivalry than cooperation.
Joanna Lillis is a journalist based in Almaty and author of Dark Shadows: Inside the Secret World of Kazakhstan.
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