Water Dispute Unresolved at Central Asian Summit

Water Dispute Unresolved at Central Asian Summit

Tuesday, 2 June, 2009
Hopes that a meeting between all five Central Asian presidents would resolve a dispute over the construction of new hydroelectric power stations were dashed when the leaders argued publicly at the April 28 meeting.

The formal reason for the heads of state to gather in Almaty was a meeting of the International Fund to Save the Aral Sea, IFAS, of which all five countries are members. But it was always clear they were going to discuss Kyrgyz and Tajik plans to build new power stations and the impact that might have on water levels in the Syr Darya and Amu Darya rivers, which are crucial to Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakstan.

The Uzbeks, in particular, have consistently opposed the Kambarata and Roghun power plants, arguing that their country could suffer droughts when water is dammed up in reservoirs in the two upstream states. They have recently argued that the projects should not go ahead unless an internationally-led study is conducted to look at the environmental impact. The World Bank made a similar proposal in March, and Tashkent has been busy enlisting the other downstream states, Turkmenistan and Kazakstan, to support its cause. (See Uzbek Overtures to Kazakstan on Water Dispute, RCA No. 574, 27-Apr-09.)

In the event, the Almaty summit showed only that none of the Central Asian is yet prepared for compromises, and that a solution to the dispute therefore remains a distant prospect. References to the issue were struck out of the presidents' joint concluding statement before it was made public.

President Islam Karimov, for example, described the hydroelectric projects as “thoughtless”, and his Turkmen counterpart Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov insisted that “no measures to change the water and energy balance must be taken unless they have been agreed”.

On the other side of the dispute, Kyrgyzstan’s president Kurmanbek Bakiev argued that downstream states should pay his country for the water it releases along the rivers, given that the Kyrgyz have to cover the costs of technical infrastructure to regulate water flows.

An NBCentralAsia analyst in Almaty summed up the results as follows, “The summit clearly demonstrated that among Central Asian leaders, there is neither an atmosphere of trust nor a desire to engage in constructive dialogue.”

Aydos Sarimov, a political scientist in Kazakstan, says it will take another decade before a solution can be found. By that point, he hopes, the current generation of leaders, who are not interested in regional integration, will have been replaced by “more rational politicians who seek cooperation rather than negative competition”.

Tashkent-based economist Komron Aliev says regional leaders will need to find the political will to bear the costs of shared water management in an equitable manner.

Sergei Smirnov, an economist from Kazakstan, says Central Asian leaders ultimately have no other option than to negotiate, as they are bound together by a waterway system whose infrastructure was designed in the Soviet period with the aim of satisfying the needs of all the then constituent republics.

Central Asia
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