Water Crisis in Central Asia: Centers of Conflict and Possible Consequences for Iran

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Vali Kouzegar Kaleji
Researcher of Eurasia Studies Group at the Center for Strategic Research, Tehran

“Water is essence of life” is a famous saying which attests to high importance of water in the survival of human society. The importance of this vital substance is felt more in those parts of the Earth where water resources are lower or scarcer than other parts where water is found in abundance. The Central Asia is an arid region which is grappling with serious crisis with regard to water resources. There are two main rivers in this arid region, Syr Darya and Amu Darya, which cross a number of countries before pouring into Aral Sea. Unfortunately, total volume of water in the Aral Sea has reduced more than 75 percent now compared to what it was in 1975. The main reasons include 35 percent reduction in the volume of natural glaciers in the Central Asia, unfair division of water resources, building dams and huge power plants, incorrect use of pastures and destruction of forests, unprecedented increase in the Central Asia’s population, irrigation of millions of uncultivated lands, 50-percent rate of water wastage in old canals, inefficient use of water resources, as well as expansion of Karakum and Kyzyl Kum deserts. This issue has had very destructive effects on the Central Asian environment which has led to a steep increase in the number of windstorms and dry spells, reduction of water resources of Tajikistan (as the sole country with the highest water resources) by 30-35 percent, destruction of about 60,000 hectares of cotton farms and other farmlands in this country, in addition to causing many problems for the supply of drinking and agriculture water for Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

What has turned water crisis into a matter of dispute among regional countries is special and different conditions of the Central Asian states in view of their share of regional water resources. Amu Darya and Syr Darya first cross Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in their way toward Aral Sea. These countries are, therefore, considered upstream countries. The rivers then enter Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan which are considered downstream countries. It is noteworthy that despite abundance of water resources, the upstream countries are poor in terms of oil and gas reserves. Therefore, to make up for the shortage and supply their needed energy, they have built many hydroelectric power plants the most important of which include constriction of Kambarata power plant in Kyrgyzstan and completion of the huge Rogun power plant in Tajikistan. Since such power plants use water resources to generate electricity, construction of dams and power plants in upstream countries has led to reduction of water flow from Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers to downstream countries. For example, as a major producer of cotton or “white gold,” Uzbekistan will be greatly damaged from such state of affairs. Cultivation of cotton needs a lot of water and reduction of water resources will reduce cotton crop which is one of the export staples of Uzbekistan. As a result, Tashkent has already voiced its vehement opposition to the two aforesaid projects. By using political lobbies, the Uzbek government has even been able to discourage the Russian contractor, Rusal, which was supposed to complete Tajikistan’s Rogun power plant, from going on with the project. It has even convinced the government of China to withdraw from a project which aims to build a hydroelectric power plant over Zarafshan River and whose construction was supposed to begin in the spring of 2010.

This case clearly proves that two big and powerful countries, China and Russia, are playing a very influential role in regional disputes among Central Asian countries. The support provided by China and Russia to Uzbekistan has angered Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan as upstream countries and has even led to escalation of differences and confrontation among regional states.

As a result of such differences, various regional and international efforts which aimed to solve disputes over the exploitation of the Central Asian water resources have not reached a final conclusion yet. The Central Asian countries have so far proposed and considered more than eight bills for fair division of regional water resources, but none of them have been accepted by all countries. Therefore, there are concerns that “if the water problem is not solved through negotiations, an imminent war over water may start in the near future.” Russia’s support for countries like Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan can act as a catalyst to speed up the breakout of such war. The historical background of threats and measures taken by regional countries against one another further increases the possibility of a regional war. For example, when Uzbekistan cut gas exports to Kyrgyzstan in the winter of 2000, Kyrgyzstan reacted by draining a great amount of water which had been stored behind Toktogul Dam to be used for the generation of hydropower. The dam, however, supplied a remarkable part of water that is used by Uzbek farmers for agricultural purposes. As a result, Uzbekistan established a military garrison on its border with Kyrgyzstan, deployed tanks, armored vehicles and helicopters and launched military drills aimed at conquering Toktogul Dam. In response, Kyrgyzstan threatened to blow up the dam which would have led to total destruction of all farmlands in Uzbekistan along Fergana and Zarafshan valleys. Although the crisis ebbed some time later, it was an exemplar instance of the high potential that the water crisis in this region has for rapidly evolving into political and even military confrontation among Central Asian countries.

Meanwhile, Iran, which is located in the immediate neighborhood of Central Asia, cannot stay away from negative and destructive consequences of such disputes whose spinoffs are sure to affect Iran. When it comes to the environment, expansion of the Central Asian deserts can pose serious environmental threats to northeastern parts of Iran, especially along the Caspian Sea basin. From an economic viewpoint, in view of widespread presence of Iranian companies in various economic projects in the Central Asia, especially in dam building and construction of power plants in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, any serious dispute and crisis will endanger Iran’s huge investments in this region. From a political standpoint, escalation of disputes among regional countries can deal a serious blow to relative stability and security of Central Asia. This, in turn, will increase the risk of military confrontation among countries and involve big regional and transregional powers in the crisis. As a result, millions of refugees will swarm Iran’s northeastern borders which will not be beneficial to Iran’s interests and national security. Therefore, Iran can play a crucial part in preventing further escalation of disputes and evolution of the existing crisis into an all-out military confrontation by taking advantage of its diplomatic capacities to get regional countries’ positions close together and, in the same time, design and implement water supply projects in such downstream countries as Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. In this way, Iran will be able to provide grounds for protection of peace and stability and promotion of sustainable development in the region more than any time before.

Key Words: Water Crisis, Central Asia, Iran, Conflict and Consequences, Peace and Stability, Military Confrontation, Kaleji

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