Central Asian Water: The Thirsty Dragon, The Aral Sea, and Ongoing Dilemmas

As we have discussed in this blog previously, Central Asian countries are divided into water suppliers (the mountainous countries of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan) and water consumers (Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan,  Uzbekistan).  But the Central Asian water crisis is not just about the fate of the Aral Sea. It is about the  management of the entire basin, including the sources & increasing number of withdrawals from China.

The main water crisis in Central Asia at present is due to the way water has been allocated and managed; it is not a crisis of quantity but of distribution.  This may change in the future as China looks ever more keenly towards tapping Central Asia’s water sources but, for now, the main problem lies in the imbalance in water allocations. At independence, downstream states  withdrew 82% of water (Uzbekistan withdrew 52%, Turkmenistan 20% and Kazakhstan 10%). In  contrast, the total water withdrawal of the upstream states (Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan) was  just 17%. Agreements were signed to maintain these allocations and thus assure cotton production in  downstream states, but they pay no heed to the changes that have occurred since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

As background, Central Asia is highly dependent on its two main rivers, the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya. Other  important rivers are the Murgab, the Zeravshan, the Ili, the Emel, the Irtysh, the Atrek, the Chu, the  Talas, the Assa and the Tedzhen.  The Amu Darya is 1,415km long and has the highest water-bearing capacity of the region. It  originates at the confl uence of the Panj and Vakhsh rivers. The river, or its major tributaries, fl ows  along the borders of and across four states—Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan— entering, leaving, and re-entering the last two states several times. Tajikistan contributes 80% of  the fl ow generated in the Amu Darya river basin, followed by Afghanistan (8%), Uzbekistan (6%)  and Kyrgyzstan (3%). Turkmenistan and Iran together contribute around 3% (most of which is formed  in Iran).  Although it carries less water than the Amu Darya, the Syr Darya is the longest river in Central  Asia (2,212km). It flows from the Tien Shan mountains, along the borders of and across four states— Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan—before fl owing into the Aral Sea. Kyrgyzstan  contributes 74% of the river fl ow, followed by Kazakhstan (12%), Uzbekistan (11%) and Tajikistan  (3%).6 Both river basins have an extended network of dams, reservoirs and irrigation canals, resulting  in one of the most complex water systems in the world.

In addition, there are a number of other transboundary rivers. China and Kazakhstan share some  20 rivers, among which are the Ili and the Irtysh.  The Irtysh also fl ows in the Russian Federation.  China shares the Tarim with Kyrgyzstan, as well as others that have their sources in Kyrgyzstan and  flow into China. Afghanistan is the upstream state for the Murgab and the Tedzhen, which it shares  with Turkmenistan (the Tedzhen is also shared with Iran). The Chu, Talas and Assa rivers fl ow through  Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. Lastly, the Atrek runs between Turkmenistan and Iran.

China is an increasingly important actor in the governance of Central Asian waters.   Beijing effectively views Central Asia as a region capable of supplying it with cheap electricity, which could make up with the energy shortfall in its western Xinjiang province.  Agricultural  development in the province is a priority: cotton occupies close to half of Xinjiang’s arable land and  Beijing considers the massive exportation of textiles to be of vital strategic interest.  China is already using some of the Irtysh waters to provide water to the Karamay oil fi elds.42  Further development in the province is to be facilitated through diversion schemes for the Irtysh and  the Ili. This includes constructing a canal (22m wide and 300km long) to divert water from the Irtysh  to Lake Ulungur in Xinjiang. In October 2004, the Chinese ambassador to Kazakhstan, Pei Shouxiao,  affi rmed that his country was counting on using as much as 40% of the Irtysh’s effluence.  These plans would endanger access to water for inhabitants of northern Kazakhstan and  Kazakhstan’s development projects in this part of the territory, in particular its new capital city of  Astana. It would also affect industry in the area, which is highly dependent upon these rivers, and  navigation on the Irtysh, which is an important transport axis with the Russian Federation.  Lastly, the  project could have a serious environmental impact.  China’s use of water from the Ili River is already having signifi cant consequences on Lake  Balkhash, one of the 20 largest lakes in the world. Many specialists argue that Lake Balkhash is in  serious danger of following the sad fate of the Aral Sea. Mels Eleusizov, the head of Kazakhstan’s  “Tagibat” environmental movement and a former presidential candidate, has said that the lake “is  in a very vulnerable position, receiving 80 percent of its water from the Ili”.  In 2001, China and  Kazakhstan signed an agreement to facilitate cooperation on transboundary water management  including the Ili, but despite annual meetings no specifi c yearly water allocation has been agreed  on. China and Kazakhstan held talks on the problem quite recently, but China spurned Kazakhstan’s  proposal to send China large stocks of free or heavily subsidized food for 10 years in exchange for a  commitment from China to allow an unimpeded fl ow of river water into the lake.

This entry was posted on Friday, January 23rd, 2009 at 12:25 pm and is filed under Aral Basin, Azerbaijan, China, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  Both comments and pings are currently closed. 

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