Natural resources have always been the driving force for determining the world order. This simple but universal rule forms the basis of both geoeconomics and geopolitics. In the meantime, increasing environmental concerns in recent years have made water issues the primary concern of interstate disputes. In this context, considering that water is a strategic resource and the basis of the sustainable development of Central Asia, it can be predicted that addressing transboundary water use issues will become the basic dynamic of regional cooperation pursuits.
Currently, 76 million people live in five Central Asian countries. Most of the region’s important water resources come from the melting of snow and glaciers in the God Mountains, the Hindu Kush Mountains, the Wahan Mountains and the Pamir Mountains, and merge into common water resources, namely the Siri Darya and Amu Darya rivers.
Most of the people living in the region are directly or indirectly dependent on water due to agricultural activities. As a matter of fact, 90% of Central Asia’s energy needs are met from hydroelectric sources. This makes water resources much more significant. Additionally, increasing population leads to higher demand for water in the states of the region. This results in disputes arising from sharing of the water resources. Undoubtedly, this situation also creates several risks.
Moreover, in parallel with global warming, the average annual temperature in Central Asia is expected to increase by 6.5°C by 2100. Thus, climate change can also cause drought. It is also known that increasing temperatures increase water demand and, in addition, shorten the irrigation season.
These developments may lead to states being dragged into a conflict of interest in the supply of agriculture and hydroelectric energy and, more importantly, to the emergence of the food security problem throughout the region. This could have political consequences that could lead to regional instability. For example, when the recent events in Karakalpakstan are considered, it is understood that one of the causes of the problems experienced is the socio-economic problems encountered due to acute water scarcity. Similar examples are likely to increase in the future. This may cause actors who want to take advantage of the weaknesses of Central Asian countries in line with their political and economic interests to deepen the instability in the region.
For all these reasons, Central Asian countries are looking for ways to use limited water resources in the most efficient way by recognizing the seriousness of potential problems. This situation makes regional cooperation essential for states. Central Asian countries are already striving to work in coordination in line with some priorities.
The first of these priorities is to improve cooperation in the use of transboundary water resources. Because the beneficial management of water for Central Asian countries in ensuring food, energy and water safety requires negotiations. In this sense, it can be said that Central Asian Heads of State Consultation Meetings have a critical role. The most concrete example of this is the Central Asia Green Agenda Program signed because of the 4th Consultation Meeting held in Cholpon-Ata, Kyrgyzstan on July 21, 2022. As it can be understood, this program reveals that there is a search for regional cooperation that will contribute to the interests of all states.
Moreover, the success of the regional states in the use of water and management of resources also serves regional cooperation processes. For example, Tashkent and Dushanbe managed to reach a compromise on the Rogun Hydroelectric Power Plant, which was planned to be built in Tajikistan. In addition, an agreement was reached between the two countries on the common use of the Zeravshan River basin and the construction of two hydroelectric power plants with a capacity of 320 MW. Another example is the agreement between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan to supply Kyrgyzstan with sufficient electricity during the winter months in return for the discharge of water from the Toktogul Hydroelectric Power Plant in 2021. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan need water to produce electricity, whereas Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan need water for irrigation. In short, the steps taken by the countries of the region to strengthen cooperation in the field of water are very important.
The second priority for the regional states is the national measures to be taken in the issue of water supply. Measures taken at the national level facilitate the management of the water crisis. This situation can be exemplified by the policies carried out in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan within the framework of the Development of the Water Sector until 2030 Concept. Similarly, the Water Sector Reform Program is carried out in Tajikistan covering the years 2016-2025. Kyrgyzstan also carries out various studies within the framework of the Agricultural Development Concept for 2021-2025. In Kazakhstan, it is known that a Water Law has been prepared by the Ministry of Ecology, Geology and Natural Resources of Kazakhstan. This draft law is planned to be submitted to the Parliament of Kazakhstan in 2023.
In conclusion, all Central Asian states decide for preserving and advancing water resources as well as improving the legal framework regarding the usage of resources.
As a result, Central Asian countries do not ignore the acute problems related to water; they oppose making the water issue a tool for competition between the states and try to compromise within the framework of a sensitive approach. It can be said that national measures targeting this aim have been taken along with the joint programs developed accordingly. This way, water becomes not a cause of conflict but a means of cooperation. This contributes to the progression of regional integration processes.
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“Вентральная Азия: на пути к укреплени водной безопасности и устойчивости вкономик”, World Bank, https://documents1.worldbank.org/curated/en/118891591902636538/pdf/Central-Asia-Towards-Water-Secure-Sustainable-Economies.pdf, (Date of Accession: 27.07.2022).
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