Areas of southern Kazakstan where water is a precious commodity most of the year round are currently in danger of disappearing under floodwater.
The high water levels are partly the result of unusually heavy rains in recent months, but the underlying problem is the way water resources are managed by the Central Asian states.
The Shardara reservoir, which collects water from the Syr Darya River after it enters Kazak territory from Uzbekistan, is close to full capacity and experts warn it could spill over at any moment. If that happens, says the head of a hydroelectric plant built on the reservoir, "All settlements within 100 km could be wiped out. We will lose pastures and 65,000 hectares of agricultural land."
According to Alisher Eserkepov, head of the district administration in Shardara, "We might have to evacuate people. There is a real danger that the reservoir will overflow."
But in their attempt to avert catastrophe, the Kazaks are creating difficulties for their Uzbek neighbors by draining off water from the reservoir, which ends up flooding low-lying areas on the other side of the border.
In an article in Uzbekistan's Pravda Vostoka newspaper on February 4, Vladimir Dukhovny, vice-president of the International Commission for Irrigation and Drainage, wrote that grazing lands, roads and electricity lines in parts of the Jizzakh and Navoi regions were under water. And a special commission set up by the Uzbek government warns that much worse flooding could follow, possibly covering thousands of hectares of pastureland.
It's not the first winter that the Syr Darya has overflowed, but Dukhovny said the problems were the worst seen since 1969.
The excess water could be checked by dams further upstream on the river. But different interests of the countries through which it flows have made it hard for them to find common cause since they became independent.
Paradoxically, the main problem is a shortage of water. Demands on the Syr Darya and the Amu Darya, which between them form the lifeblood of Central Asia, have grown so great in recent decades that the Aral Sea from which they feed has dried up to a fraction of its former size, causing immense ecological damage.
Kyrgyzstan, where the Syr Darya begins, pumps the water to produce hydroelectricity, and its need for power is greatest in winter.
But that is exactly when Kazakstan and Uzbekistan do not want more water dumped on them, because of the risk of flooding. On the contrary, they need a steady flow over the summer months to keep large and mostly inefficient irrigation systems going on otherwise arid, rain-starved lands.
Engineers at the company which manages water in the South Kazakstan province told IWPR that the current overflow is a direct consequence of the Kyrgyz opening their dams to produce electricity.
At a local level, the Kazaks say the problems are exacerbated by Uzbekistan's flood defence schemes, while the Uzbeks say these are necessary precisely to cope with the Kazak practice of draining off water onto their territory.
In reality it is unfair to apportion blame to specific countries, since they all have vital but often conflicting interests.
The Soviet Union's integrated economy allowed the Kyrgyz to meet their extra energy needs over the winter with Uzbek gas and Kazak coal, in return for damming up the water until farmers in those countries needed it.
But when they all became independent countries, the Kyrgyz government found it was being asked to pay for the fuel. Unable to do so, it started pumping more water through the hydroelectric turbines when cold weather set in.
Numerous meetings and agreements, and the creation of an inter-state commission to coordinate water use, appeared to improve matters, and in 1998 Kyrgyzstan's neighbors agreed to reinstate free fuel deliveries in return for water and electricity over the summer.
But the arrangement has never worked well, as the participants tend to break the rules whenever they perceive they are losing out.
So according to Kyrgyzstan's deputy Prime Minister Bazarbai Mambetov, his country is still forced to crank up its hydropower schemes in the winter months, because last year "our partners stopped supplying us with energy resources".
At the end of December, a group of Kazak parliamentary deputies annoyed with inaction at government level, issued a statement warning, "Disagreements between governments and delays in fulfilling their obligations could have dire consequences for ordinary people in all the countries involved."
At an emergency meeting called in the southern Kazak city of Shymkent on January 4, Kazak officials asked the Uzbeks to take more of the water load, and offered to supply Kyrgyzstan with more coal and oil. On February 3, the Uzbek government later said it was considering the request to alleviate pressure on Shardara.
In the meantime, heavy rains along the upper reaches of the Syr Darya are expected to boost the flow - and this will be further accelerated as ice blocks up the channel.
"We are afraid of any kind of weather," said a technician at the Shardara power station. "It's bad if it stays warm, as the mountain snows will start melting. But it will be even worse if a cold front arrives, because some sections of the Syr Darya will freeze over, narrowing its flow."
By Eduard Poletaev and Olga Dosybieva in Kazakstan and Sultan Jumagulov in Bishkek,
IWPR, February 06, 2004