Central Asia: June '09

IWPR event takes regional water and energy debate forward.

Central Asia: June '09

IWPR event takes regional water and energy debate forward.

Thursday, 2 July, 2009
A discussion on the complexities of Central Asian water and energy provided a rare opportunity to hear views from opposing sides in the debate, and has been described as a first step towards a common understanding of how to resolve these longstanding problems.

The event, titled Water and Energy Problems in Central Asia – is Compromise Possible?” was organised by IWPR’s Tajikistan office on June 12 and brought together about 50 top water and energy experts, politicians, diplomats and journalists from across the region. Experts invited from Tashkent were unable to attend, but an Uzbek embassy officer took part.

Currently, the regional dispute centres on plans by Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, where Central Asia’s two major waterways rise, to build new power stations on the upper reaches of the Amu Darya and Syr Darya. These states argue that they have no energy sources except hydroelectric power, and cannot afford to continue importing oil, gas and coal from their resource-rich neighbours. For their part, the downstream states, Uzbekistan, Kazakstan and Turkmenistan, are worried that new dams will shut off water that they vitally need to irrigate their arid farmlands.

Resolving this issue is central to the region’s future, although at government level, it seems to be driving regional states further and further apart from one another at the moment.

An April 28 summit involving all five Central Asian presidents, for example, had been expected to create greater understanding of each state’s position as a first step towards a compromise deal, but instead resulted in leaders trading recriminations in public.

The Tajiks and Kyrgyz argue that they must press ahead with their dam schemes to rescue their battered economies and provide their populations with heat and light. Meanwhile Uzbekistan, in particular, insists they must not do so unless there is some mechanism to ensure the rest of the region does not suffer drought or other environmental fall-out.

As one of the seminar participants, Kyrgyz analyst Bazarbay Mambetov, noted, “It isn’t a shortage of water that [regional states] suffer from right now, it’s a lack of mutual trust on water and energy matters.”

Discussions within each country often simply restate the prevailing national position, leaving little room for debate or attempts to understand other states’ perspectives, genuine concerns and vital interests.

“It has long been time to shed light on the many details relating to this issue,” said Parviz Mullojonov, a political analyst from Tajikistan. “Water use is one of the most conflict-filled issues in the region. It gives rise to countless arguments and differences of standpoint between states. With every year that passes, it’s going to get more and more acute.”

Another Tajik analyst, Rashid Abdullo, praised IWPR’s reports on Central Asia energy and water for giving space to opposing viewpoints. “They aren’t emotionally charged and don’t indulge in the hysteria and mutual recriminations that are so much a feature of the [region-wide] national media,” he said. (For a recent IWPR report on this subject, see Uzbek Overtures to Kazakstan on Water Dispute, (RCA No. 574, 27-Apr-09.)

Suhrob Sharipov heads the Tajik Centre for Strategic Studies which played host to the IWPR event, and said the meeting could be a stepping-stone towards “bringing our respective standpoints closer together”. Given that previous efforts have failed, this process of consensus-building was likely to take time, he cautioned.

Although participants voiced forthright views reflecting their respective national interests – with Orozbek Moldaliev of the Central Asian Politics, Religion and Security Centre in Bishkek setting out the Uzbek position in the absence of experts from that country – the overriding mood was to listen to each other and identify points of commonality rather than difference.

For the journalists attending the event, there was a special session devoted to how media should cover sensitive transnational issues like water use.

Many of the reporters went away and wrote stories about the discussion, which appeared in local outlets like Asia-Plus, CA-News, and in the widely-read regional news site Centrasia.ru.

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