Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Parched Uzbekistan Covets Russian River Waters

Moscow is unlikely to back Tashkent's bid to resurrect an old Soviet plan to divert water from Siberia to its drought-ridden cotton fields.
By Karina Insarova

Russia is not expected to approve an Uzbek plan to divert water from Siberia to the cotton fields of the Central Asian state, where drought and a population surge threaten the entire region with catastrophe.

Uzbek experts floated the proposal at a recent Aral Sea forum in Tashkent and Nukus. They want to resurrect a Soviet plan from the 1980s to divert part of the river flow of the Ob and the Irtysh to parched areas of the region.

The project would involve channelling 6 per cent of the flow of the Ob to Central Asia along a new canal, running through Kazakstan to Karakalpakstan, in Uzbekistan, where the water shortage is most severe.

Tashkent's water shortage worsens each year, owing to a combination of drought, population growth and the predominance of the cotton industry. The latter is indispensable, accounting for 50 to 60 per cent of the country's exports and earning about 1.6 billion US dollars each year. The World Bank estimates that the sector employs 40 per cent of the Uzbek workforce and consumes 90 per cent of the nation's water supply.

The population, meanwhile, continues to surge. Now standing at almost 25 million, it is expected to reach 30 to 32 million within 15 years. By then, experts fear the water shortage will reach catastrophic levels. Some predict military conflicts between Central Asian states over remaining resources.

"The shortage will only get worse as the population increases," said Ismail Jurabekov, aide to the Uzbek president, Islam Karimov, at the Tashkent conference. "There is no other way to address this problem but to source water outside the region."

Uzbekistan's "Cotton Rush" started in the Soviet era, when cultivation of the crop expanded rapidly and the region's waterways, the Amudarya and Syrdarya, were mercilessly exploited for irrigation. Unsparing use of river water contributed to the shrinking of the Aral Sea, while abundant use of chemical fertilisers created an additional problem of pollution.

Speakers at the forum said diversion of the Ob and the Irtysh could save Central Asia and, in particular, Karakalpakstan, which for 30 years has endured drought and the disastrous consequences of the Aral Sea's demise.

Amid Tadjiev, chief minister for the autonomous republic said some districts had seen no rain for years. "It's hard to imagine that this area used to have thriving agriculture," he said. "Our economy is in ruin. Living standards have plummeted, our traditional sectors of agriculture hardly make any money anymore and social unrest is brewing. People have been leaving in droves."

Uzbekistan suggested the river diversion would bring positive gains to Russia. "Siberian water would help us grow fruit, vegetables, cotton and grain crops, the bulk of which will feed Russian provinces," Jurabekov said. "It would be in Russia's interests to import agricultural produce from Central Asia rather than from more remote parts of the world."

While no one disputes the extent of Uzbekistan's plight, the Russian ambassador to Uzbekistan, Dmitri Ryurikov, made it clear that Moscow was unlikely to agree in a hurry.

Experts scoff at the notion of any of the countries involved raising the huge sums that would be needed to undertake such a monumental building project. "No one has the money to do it," one commented. "Secondly, the former Soviet republics have become alienated from each other over the 10 years since they became independent. Thirdly, an avalanche of protests would follow from Russian environmentalists and the public, just like back in the 1980s."

Others observers pointed out that Russia was even less likely to help Uzbekistan now that Tashkent had embraced America's security umbrella. The country opened its bases last year to US troop deployment against the Taleban in Afghanistan.

The man who masterminded the Soviet project, Nikolay Grishchenko, now president of Sovintervod enterprise - a state research centre which monitors water use - confessed he was "pleasantly surprised" to hear his project was on the table once more.

He regrets that work was not started in the 1980s, saying it would have boosted agricultural output in Kazakstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan and provided the whole region with quality drinking water. "The West was against it, because it was selling a lot of grain and other produce to the Soviet Union and needed to keep its market intact," he said.

Participants at the Tashkent forum agreed to set up an international body to develop the project and submit it for review to the governments of the region. But few seriously believe the Russian authorities will court public fury by agreeing. In the meantime, Central Asia's water shortage can only get worse.

Karina Insarova is the pseudonym of a journalist in Karakalpakstan