Siberian River Project Revived

Kazak president Nursultan Nazarbaev wants to resuscitate one of the grand failed schemes of the Soviet era - to divert waters from Siberian rivers to Central Asia. Some ecologists are already warning that the desire to address the region’s acute water shortage could blind the Kazak government to the possible environmental dangers.

Nazarbaev made his suggestion on September 4 following an informal summit of four Central Asian leaders in Astana, where the topic of water resource management was discussed. Some observers have suggested that the failure to agree on a region-wide water consortium at the summit prompted the Kazak president to look at other, more radical solutions.

Nazarbaev insisted that no hard evidence exists to show that diverting Siberian river waters would have unwelcome environmental effects, and he said Soviet planners were unwise to abandon the plan in the face of public opposition.

NBCentralAsia analysts warn that the plan is fraught with ecological and political risks, which, added to the high costs of such a project, make it unlikely that it can be carried through. Yet the region’s dire need for water may still breath life into to a long-defunct idea.

The great rivers of Siberia had an allure for Soviet state planners for decades. The idea of using them to water the cotton fields of Central Asia originally came up in 1965, but after nearly 20 years of research and controversy, the idea was finally scrapped.

There have been similar well-intentioned but catastrophic projects, such as diverting waters from the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers which emptied the Aral Sea.

Now the Siberian rivers idea is back on the table, with supporters ranging from Moscow mayor Yury Luzhkov to Uzbek president Islam Karimov, as well as Nazarbaev. But ecologists warn that tampering with nature can have unforeseen, and irreversible, consequences.

Kazakstan’s booming economy is thirsty for water for industrial use, irrigation and drinking. The oil giant has been forced to negotiate with its much smaller and weaker neighbours Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, which control the region’s water sources. These discussions are difficult, at times acrimonious, and there have been no permanent solutions.

“Water has always been a universal source of conflict,” said Oleg Sidorov, a leading political analyst in Kazakstan.

At upwards of 40 billion US dollars, the likely cost of the project is reason enough to doubt it has a future. Only Russia can afford to countenance this kind of outlay, and some see the plan as yet another instrument through which Moscow can expand its already considerable influence in Central Asia.

“It all depends on the price tag and on Russia’s political good will,” said an unnamed Kazak government advisor.

(News Briefing Central Asia draws comment and analysis from a broad range of political observers across the region.)