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Water War Threatens Treaty

Disagreements over water have postponed ratification of a friendship treaty between Kazakstan and Kyrgyzstan.
By Leila Saralaeva

A seemingly innocuous Kyrgyz-Kazak friendship treaty has re-ignited the long-running water debate between the neighbouring countries and caused hard feelings on both sides of the border.

After days of heated discussions, the Kyrgyz parliament on December 7 indefinitely postponed ratification of the agreement signed last December in Astana by presidents Nursultan Nazarbaev of Kazakstan and Kyrgyzstan’s Askar Akaev.

The sticking point of the “treaty of eternal friendship” is a section dealing with the joint use of trans-national waterways which originate in Kyrgyzstan.

Though at present it is only a framework document containing no real detail, Bishkek deputies are concerned the agreement fails to protect their country’s interests.

They worry that as Kyrgyzstan has no gas or oil fields, it has only one trump card in resolving regional disputes – its water resources.

“When we understand what advantages Kyrgyzstan will receive after the agreement is signed, then we will be able to talk about ratification,” said deputy Marat Sultanov. “Our own government has not been able to show us the pluses, the benefits we will receive. The deputies can only see minuses from the loss of independence in the use of water resources.”

Sultanov’s fellow deputy Adakhan Madumarov told IWPR he too is unhappy with the document.

“Water resources are an integral part of our natural wealth, just like our land, but the agreement states that we must coordinate our policies with Astana in the use of water resources. Why should we? Our water resources have no relation to Kazakstan.”

For its part, Kazakstan has already ratified the agreement and cannot see what the fuss is about.

Yerjan Mukash, head of the department dealing with Central Asian affairs at Kazakstan’s foreign ministry, said the water issue is irrelevant as the treaty is a wide-ranging document that only sets out intentions and does not deal with specifics.

Kyrgyzstan provides more than half the fresh water resources in Central Asia and how it shares that wealth has been a frequent source of controversy with its neighbours.

It pumps much of its water to produce hydroelectricity and its need for power is greatest in the winter.

That’s exactly when Kazakstan and Uzbekistan do not want more water, because of the risk of flooding in their low-lying countries. On the contrary, they need a steady flow over the summer months to keep large and mostly inefficient irrigation systems going on otherwise arid and rain-starved lands.

In Soviet times, Kyrgyzstan met its winter energy needs with Uzbek gas and Kazak coal, in return for releasing the water downstream when its neighbours needed it. But after independence, Kyrgyzstan found it was being asked to pay for the fuel.

A 1998 agreement to reinstate free fuel deliveries in return for water and electricity in summer, has never worked well as the participants break the rules whenever they feel they are losing out.

Kyrgyz deputy Akylbek Japarov feels it is unfair that Kyrgyzstan gives away its most important resource for nothing. “We are required to create a joint enterprise with the Kazaks and use it together, but we must pay dollars for their coal and oil,” he told IWPR.

Deputy Alymbai Sultanov agrees, “The Kyrgyz have a saying: ‘In a bad house, the guest is the master.’ This is the situation here. Because we are a small, weak nation, we must make concessions to Kazakstan, and not just give them water for free, but give them holiday homes on Lake Issyk-Kul. We must not sign this document, otherwise we will be betraying our voters.”

Nurken Musirali, head of the Kazak agriculture ministry’s department for water resources, disputes the Kyrgyz position that it owns the water that originates within its territory and therefore should receive payment.

He believes agreements must be signed – as they were during the Soviet era - to ensure Kazakstan receives the water it needs and Kyrgyzstan is compensated for the cost of preserving the infrastructure, about 25 million US dollars a year.

“It’s about joint maintenance of water facilities, not payment for water,” Musirali said.

“How the new use of water will differ from the present system will make for lengthy discussions and a shared dialogue. We are good neighbours, and since Kazakstan and Kyrgyzstan have concluded a treaty of eternal friendship, we must resolve all points of disagreement via negotiation and consultation.”

There are numerous major irrigation works in Kyrgyzstan, built during the Soviet period, that are also used by Kazakstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. They include the Ortotokoi reservoir, the Kirov reservoir and the huge Toktogul reservoir, used entirely by Kyrgyzstan’s neighbours.

The treaty is far from dead, however. Kyrgyz elections are scheduled for February after which the new parliament is expected to re-examine the document.

In the meantime, some are warning that the controversy could damage dealings between the two countries.

“This will certainly affect bilateral relations,” said Muratbek Imanaliev, a former Kyrgyz foreign minister. “This situation will be met with disapproval in Astana. It will not be a cooling of economic relations, as they are already cool, but political relations will suffer.”

Leila Saralaeva is an independent journalist in Bishkek.

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