Water Politics In Central Asia and Tajik Hopes Water Will Power Its Ambitions

While not recent publications, two interesting reports on the state of water politics in Central Asia.  The first, via AquaDoc, gives a taste of some of the difficult issues faced by the countries in the Syr Darya and Amu Darya basins, the two major streams in the Central Asia region:

“…Regarding Central Asia, I have already written about water as a foreign policy tool, Lake Balkhash, and Turkmenistan’s “lake in the desert” project.

Both these maps are from the University of Texas’ Perry-Castañeda map collection. They will give you a good idea of the region and its streams.

The aforementioned streams both terminate in the Aral Sea, and the diversion of these rivers for agriculture (food and cotton) during the Soviet area initiated the extreme desiccation of the Aral Sea. Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan use most of the diverted water for irrigation; the latter is the world’s #2 cotton exporter.

In a nutshell, Tajikistan wants to develop hydropower on the Vakhsh River, a major tributary of the Amu Darya. 80% of the water in Amu Darya basin is derived from Tajikistan, and 8% from Afghanistan. Uzbekistan, and to some degree, Turkmenistan, are worried that Tajikistan will hold up much of the summer flow behind dams so that it can generate much-needed electricity in the winter. That would cut down on the available irrigation for food and cotton during the summer. Tajikistan says it won’t do that. Hmmm….

Another issue is the power itself. Uzbekistan sells power to Tajikistan, and that market would diminish.  But Tajikistan wants to sell its excess power to privide income, and that would have to go through Uzbekistan, meaning the Uzbeks would again have leverage. So Tajikistan wants to partner with Kyrgyzstan, which wants to develop more hydropower and irrigation on the Syr Darya, to which it contributes 74% of the flow, and build a north-south power corridor that would avoid Uzbekistan.  Naturally the Uzbeks are further annoyed by all this. At one point they even threatened military action against Kyrgyzstan over a dam and reservoir on the Syr Darya.

Another unknown in this mix is Afghanistan, which, because of internal turmoil, is not much involved in Central Asian water issues. But should some measure of stability occur, it will want to develop the Amu Darya for irrigation and perhaps hydropower. So the plot will thicken.

Want to know more?

Below is an excellent overview paper on Central Asia water governance by Jeremy Allouche,  that appeared in 2007, no. 4, of Disarmament Forum. The issue was titled, “Central Asia at the Crossroads”. Allouche covered far more than what I did here, and provided a lot of the information I presented.

Download central_asia_waterallouche.pdf

Here are also several books I’ve found helpful:

Central Eurasian Water Crisis, 1998. Iwao Kobori and Michael H. Glantz (editors). United Nations University Press. This book is a bit dated, and also covers the Dead Sea.

Creeping Environmental Problems and Sustainable Development in the Aral Sea Basin, 1999. Michael H. Glantz (ed.) Cambridge. Covers more than just water.

Transboundary Water Resources: A Foundation for Regional Stability in Central Asia, 2008. John E. Moerlins, Mikhail K. Khankhasayev, Steven F. Leitman, Ernazar J. Makhmudov (eds.). Proceedings of a NATO meeting. Yours truly has a paper in the book.

The second, courtesy of The New York Times, looks at Tajikistan’s hopes that water will power its ambitions:

The Nurek dam is the world’s tallest. Another planned for Rogun will be even higher

The inscription just above a tunnel at the foot of the colossal Nurek hydropower dam in south central Tajikistan is succinct: “Water Is Life.” The frigid, frothing Vakhsh River rushing under it adds a visual punctuation mark.

In Tajikistan, the source of more than 40 percent of Central Asia’s water, this is no mere platitude. The mountainous state lacks the industry and natural riches that bless other former Soviet Central Asian republics. Water is one of the few resources the country possesses in great abundance.

For this reason, President Emomali Rakhmon has pinned Tajikistan’s economic hopes — and perhaps even its continued political existence — on developing its hydropower potential.

Three projects are either under construction or being considered, including Rogun, a gargantuan structure farther up the Vakhsh River. Tajik officials say they have hopes of building more than 20 hydroelectric plants and dams.

But a number of sizable hurdles must be surmounted before the plans for a great hydropower future can be realized. Tajikistan is in an earthquake zone and the dams must be built to withstand major seismic shocks. Officials are expected to conduct environmental impact studies to determine whether any flora or fauna will be threatened.

The Tajik government is also heavily in debt and must find heavy foreign investment to build the dams. On Wednesday, China agreed to build a $300 million hydroelectric power plant, Nurobad-2, with a capacity of 160 to 220 megawatts. But Tajik officials say Rogun alone will cost up to $3.2 billion.

Further afield, the region’s complicated water politics, where upstream and downstream countries have diametrically opposed needs and aims, threaten to intensify.

Here, water irrigates endless fields of cotton, one of the main sources of income in this primarily agricultural land. Nurek — the world’s highest dam, at 984 feet, and a prestige project of the Soviet Union — is the difference between light and darkness, heat and no heat, for the majority of Tajikistan’s seven million inhabitants, supplying nearly all the country’s energy needs. It also provides cheap electricity to power the Talco aluminum plant, the nation’s largest industrial enterprise.

Rogun, as it is now envisioned, would surpass Nurek’s height by more than 100 feet.

Though for the moment it seems to be managing, Tajikistan threatens to become a failed state, say Western experts and diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the issue. The country still has not fully recovered from a devastating civil war a decade ago. State coffers are virtually empty, while the government is viewed as unable to meet basic needs.

The situation was laid bare last winter when prolonged subzero temperatures overloaded the Soviet-era electrical grid, plunging the entire country into cold and darkness. For Western officials working in Tajikistan, the emergency was a disturbing revelation of the government’s dysfunction.

“The crisis was not caused by the winter weather,” said an official of an American nongovernmental organization, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the news media. “The crisis was triggered by the winter weather, but caused by chronic mismanagement.”

All of Tajikistan’s power troubles will be remedied by the dam projects, the Rakhmon government hopes. They will not only provide for all of Tajikistan’s energy needs but also allow the country to export power to neighboring countries.

“It’s a good idea — hydropower is one of the few resources that Tajikistan can exploit,” said John Morgan, an official with Usaid, the American assistance program, and a power specialist. “Power lines could go to Afghanistan and Pakistan, which are both energy-starved countries, and to the rest of Central Asia as well.”

Rogun, for example, will generate about 13 billion kilowatt hours per year, more than 80 percent of the country’s average consumption, officials at the construction site say. In the short term, Sangtuda-1, a hydropower plant that began operating last winter, will take on some of the country’s electrical heavy lifting, though its introduction failed to resolve the electricity crisis.

But outside investors are leery. While individual investors who are more accepting of risk may materialize, international donor organizations and banks have become more circumspect with Tajikistan. Besides the dysfunction and corruption revealed by the winter crisis, the International Monetary Fund recently announced that Tajikistan had misreported its finances six times over the last decade, an I.M.F. record. President Rakhmon has asked Tajiks to voluntarily forfeit a month’s wages, or about $10 million, to finance the initial building stage.

“I urge all the patriots and sons of our land to take active part in constructing the first phase of the plant and add your contribution to the country’s energy independence,” he said.

Water issues must also be resolved. Central Asia’s disagreements over how to allocate water resources resemble the Middle East’s in their complexity and potential for conflict. Downstream countries, most prominently Uzbekistan, have steadfastly opposed Tajikistan’s hydroelectric plans. The two countries are engaged in an undeclared cold war, Western diplomatic analysts say.

The Uzbeks, who need to provide for their expansive and inefficiently irrigated cotton fields, say that the dams will disturb the water cycle, withholding water in the summer when it is needed and releasing it in the winter for electricity.

Tajik authorities say that the opposite will be true and that the dams will better regulate water distribution: water will be held in the winter and released in the summer.

Other analysts say that the Uzbeks, who supply electricity to Tajikistan, fear they will lose leverage over their neighbors.

“The thing is, the more dams, the more control the Tajiks will have over the water, and that’s what the Uzbeks are afraid of,” said one Western diplomat in the capital, Dushanbe.

This entry was posted on Friday, October 14th, 2011 at 11:48 pm and is filed under Tajikistan, Turkmenistan.  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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