Central Asian republics emerged from a recent conference in Ukraine with plans to harness European and international support for redistributing and pricing water. While Russian politicians are advancing a Soviet-style water diversion scheme for the region, former Soviet states are tentatively exploring ways to draw water more efficiently.
At the fifth annual Pan-European Ministerial Conference in Ukraine from May 21 to 23, the five Central Asian nations formally invited international agencies and lenders to craft and enforce policies for protecting water sources. While the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe presses that agenda, bilateral talks may also gather strength. In early May, a Kyrgyzstani newspaper reported that Kyrgyzstan's embassy in Dushanbe, Tajikistan had approached the host government about creating a joint working group for financing new hydropower engineering efforts. This official endorsement of water management contrasts with past practice. As the Central Asian countries' "Invitation to Partnership" notes, "the resource-based approach that evolved during the arms race still dominates water management thinking in Central Asian countries." But some potent agencies still champion discredited methods.
At a conference in Moscow in early April, all speeches explored the 32-year-old idea of diverting part of the Ob River in Siberia's flow via a new canal to Central Asian republics. Diversion of the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers in the Soviet era led the Aral Sea to shrink. Central Asian republics notoriously waste water: the Kiev conference document claims that per capita consumption in the five countries averages twice that of developed nations. Supplies from the lower Amu Darya, which runs through Uzbekistan, have operated for years at less than half of an artificially low consumption limit. Levels will decrease more starkly "against the background of population growth…increased uptake from Afghanistan and accelerated processes of desertification and climate change," the Kiev document says.
Nonetheless, Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, an influential politician who has campaigned for a new diversion project involving the Ob, opened an April 9 conference in Moscow with a promise: "This idea will be realized." The Kiev document's priorities include saving Lake Balkhash in Kazakhstan from shrinking, transferring 15 % of the region's energy use to renewable sources by expanding hydroelectric power, and increasing the zone of protected rivers and deltas by 40 percent, and reducing water waste in irrigation farming by 20 percent in seven years. Luzhkov's priorities involve restoring the diversion idea, which Soviet planners developed in 1971 and 1986. "We are talking about water as a good, of which Russia has plenty" to sell, he said. Central Asian countries have not openly rejected the idea.
Luzhkov made an economic case for the diversion project, which he estimated would cost at least $34 billion, and pay for itself in five years' worth of water fees. The Ob floods in spring, and its floodwaters do not have a clear economic use. The mayor argued that water-related failures in Central Asian republics could cause a huge wave of migration to Russia, and that constructing a canal from Siberia to Central Asia would create an economic bridge across the nations. Some participants in the corridors said they thought the project would serve to generate big orders for Moscow businesses and advance Luzhkov's political standing. "Our opinion was not very interesting to Moscow organizers. It seemed that organizers were solving their internal problems via this conference," a participant from Central Asia told EurasiaNet.
While the Aral Sea's history makes a case against ambitious diversion projects, Russian officials do not disown Luzhkov's idea. First Deputy Natural Resources Minister Nikolay Tarasov, who heads the State Water Board, called for further study amid generally positive comments at the conference. Yuri Izrael, chief of the Global Climate and Ecology Institute at the Russian Academy of Sciences, made more cautious comments about the need for further research.
Others have flatly rejected it on scientific grounds. Scientist Viktor Danilov-Danilyan, former head of the State Environmental Protection Committee, disputed Luzhkov's claim that water was a renewable resource, since it can run out when "people destroy ecological systems that promote its reproduction." Examples of such destruction include overuse of glacial runoff and stormwater by consumers. Diversion of the Aral Sea also caused a sharp increase in deposits to soil, which has harmed air quality. Danilov-Danilyan warned that diverting five to seven percent of the Ob River could have other disastrous effects.
At the Moscow conference, geopolitics seemed to influence speakers' attitudes toward the diversion project. Russian Institute of CIS Countries Director Konstantin Zatulin said that Russia could safeguard its regional influence by emerging as a water source for Central Asia. "Water is the central problem in Central Asia", Zatulin underlined. He cited the fact that 30 representatives from Central Asian republics came to the conference as evidence of their support for a large-scale Russian project. Zatulin also insisted that "Russia has to activate in this region, if it thinks about its own future" and could use the ability to provide water as a counterweight to the United States' promise of military collaboration.
Western allies are taking some steps to address the regional water crisis. The United Kingdom has also invested in Central Asian states' water reform. On April 7, according to Kyrgyzstan's Kabar news agency, Britain granted $50,000 for a commission to study management of border rivers between Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. Such commissions will face steep hurdles inside their countries and beyond. Andrey Grozin, a colleague of Zatulin's, supported this idea at the level of strategy. "The United States can't give water to Uzbekistan and Tashkent can't solve the water problem on its own," he told EurasiaNet.
If Central Asian republics try to develop cooperative conservation techniques, they will face delicate politics. An official Interstate Commission for Water Management exists, but exercises little power. Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, which have ample water resources, have never profited from selling water to low-lying states. In the mid-1990s, military exercises sometimes simulated battles over dams. Some observers at the Moscow conference speculated that military conflict between Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan could ensue if Turkmenistani President Saparmurat Niyazov manages to build a huge artificial lake in his country's desert.
By Ibragim Alibekov,
Eurasianet, May 28, 2003