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Tajik-Kyrgyz Water Clash a Sign of Things to Come

Unclear borders and poor communications blamed for latest dispute over water resources.
By Yrys Kadykeev
Kyrgyzstan and its neighbour Tajikistan are caught up in a diplomatic spat after a local clash erupted on the two countries’ shared border over access to water.

Although the two countries generally enjoy good relations, this dispute reflects the vital importance of water in Central Asia – exacerbated by the lack of clarity about where exactly international borders lie.

The incident began on the evening of March 26 on the border of Kyrgyzstan’s southern Batken district and Isfara in Tajikistan. About 150 Tajiks, accompanied by their district government chief and police officers crossed what, according to Kyrgyzstan at least, is the border.

Equipped with a digger, they proceeded to try to destroy a dam that was blocking an irrigation canal that feeds the land around the Tajik village of Hoja Alo as well as areas on the Kyrgyz side.

At this point, Kyrgyz border guards arrived on the scene, and according to a statement they issued later, “assumed combat positions” and scared the Tajiks away.

Tensions appeared to ease after Kyrgyz officials arrived and agreed to open the dam and resume the flow of water into Tajikistan.

But the Kyrgyz border service reported another incident the following day, when another 150 or so villagers accompanied by frontier guards from Tajikistan crossed the border again. This time they started trying to clear the channel of the Isfara river.

The Kyrgyz border forces moved in and “evicted them”, according to the statement they issued.

On March 28, the Kyrgyz foreign ministry summoned the Tajik charge d’affaires to express the government’s concerns over the incident. It urged Tajikistan to take action to ensure similar “illegal actions” did not occur in future.

Regional experts say the tensions over water highlight the need for better cross-border communications at a local level.

They fear that growing pressure on land and water resources in the heavily-populated Fergana valley means clashes of this kind will happen again, and could potentially escalate into broader conflict.

The canal at the centre of the dispute was dammed as a temporary measure, as part of a 300,000 US dollar project financed by the World Bank to clear and refurbish the waterway in Kyrgyzstan.

The Tajiks insist the dam is located in an area where the boundary line between the two states has not been agreed. They say the Kyrgyz did not inform them that the canal was going to be blocked off, and they had to take action when they found themselves with no irrigation water during eight crucial days of the spring growing season.

Muhiba Yoqubova, the mayor of Isfara, told IWPR that the Kyrgyz version of events was inaccurate, and that it failed to acknowledge the existence of different maps of the area.

“We didn’t invade at all,” she said. “We recognise the [border shown on the] 1924 map, while they use the 1958 map, which Tajikistan has never ratified. This territory is therefore under dispute, and as a rule agricultural and construction work is prohibited on disputed land until such time as an inter-governmental commission and joint commissions complete the demarcation.”

In the Soviet Union, the borders between different constituent republics were mainly for administrative purposes. Especially in Central Asia’s difficult terrain, there were many areas where boundaries were never clearly mapped out on the ground.

Yoqubova criticised the World Bank for getting involved in the canal work, saying this violated the institution’s rule that projects involving waterways in disputed areas should not be funded.

“This project should have been coordinated with our [Tajik] agencies – with local government or at least with the water ministry,” she said.

A statement from the Soghd regional administration, which covers the whole of northern Tajikistan, confirmed that the incident stemmed from a failure to notify the Tajiks of plans to refurbish the canal.

Salamat Alamanov, head of the department for regional affairs in the Kyrgyz government, accepted that there had been a breakdown in communications.

“The Kyrgyz side needed to carry out repairs on the system for several days, so they shut off the water supply temporarily,” he explained to IWPR. “But the Tajiks weren’t informed of this. We need to pay attention to such details and notify people about our actions in good time.”

Alamanov said the squabble merely underlined the pressing need for new cross-border agreements on the use of water, under which each country would be able to put the case for its particular interests but also show regard for the needs of its neighbours.

Vafo Niatbekov, a foreign policy specialist at the Tajik president’s Centre for Strategic Studies, added that it was important for diplomatic channels to be kept open between national leaderships so that local disputes of this kind could be either avoided or defused.

Otherwise, he warned, such conflicts could escalate into “open armed confrontation”.

“One can see a trend emerging for confrontations over water,” he continued. “They might start out as local spats, but they could grow to reach inter-governmental dimensions.”

Parviz Mullojanov, a political scientist in Tajikistan, agreed that the situation called for a new approach to water and borders.

In recent years, he said, these issues had been essentially “frozen” as governments ignored the need to demarcate their borders properly. One reason was the tortuous shape of the map in this part of the world; another was that there was a real fear that local communities might take matters into their own hands if a demarcation decision went against them and cut into their land.

“These issues have always been acutely controversial,” noted Mullojanov. “But they’ve become especially acute in recent years as the population in these areas has grown, the demand for water has risen accordingly and, in consequence, there are more and more of these conflicts.”

In Kyrgyzstan, political analyst Mars Sariev, said the real problem was that while there was communication between national leaderships, this was not transmitted down to the local level.

“Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are holding high-level talks about water and energy cooperation, but this isn’t working at grassroots level,” he said.

Several factors help to explain why the business of demarcating the border in the Fergana has proved so vexed.

While Kyrgyz-Tajik relations have generally been good since both became independent in 1991, Nur Omarov, a political analyst in Kyrgyzstan, recalled the Soviet-era clashes that took place between Tajiks and Kyrgyz – again over land and water – in the so-called “hoe war” of 1989.

Omarov fears that there will be more tensions of this kind, not least because land and water issues were compounded by a growing demographic imbalance in this part of the Fergana valley. While the Tajik side of the border is becoming more densely populated, Kyrgyz areas like Batken are emptying out as the rural population moves away, often to jobs in Russia. (See Tajiks Buying Up Kyrgyz Homes Near Border, RCA No. 503, 30-Jul-07.)

“Conflicts of this kind aren’t going to stop here; there will be more of them,” warned Omarov.

Yrys Kadykeev and Jamila Majidova are IWPR-trained journalists in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, respectively.

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