A disaster in the making

Why Central Asia’s stability demands a new water policy

Central Asia is facing a water crisis. Climate change will make water availability more erratic and extreme, as the rate of glacial melt increases. But the impact goes far beyond the environment; it threatens to undermine the region’s economy, and by association its whole stability.

One thing is clear: change is needed. “Muddling through (as is the current model) won’t work in the future,” warns Dr Tobias Siegfried, a research scientist at Columbia University’s Water Centre.

While forecasts are uncertain, the outlook is alarming. The [glacier feeding the] SyrDaria in Kyrgyzstan for example “will vanish in the short to medium term – but this could be between 50 and 100 years” says Dr Siegfried. And, in Kazakhstan, demand for water could outstrip supply by as early as next year, a recent British Council-backed report suggests.

However it would be misguided to see climate change in Central Asia as just causing water scarcity. With glaciers melting, average water run-off might increase, albeit temporarily. “This additional water has to be managed,” stresses Dr Siegfried. Paul Quinn-Judge, the Central Asia project director of the International Crisis Group says the “threat of major lakes bursting would be a human catastrophe”.

The impact of water availability on ordinary people’s lives is already visible. At times in 2007-08, Tajikistan had barely one hour of power a day, following power generation shortages. Even in last winter’s mild weather, power cuts were common and cuts continue now.  Hydropower-generating capacity could provide part of the solution but will be dependent upon consistent supply of water. This will have ramifications downstream as dams reduce water supply to Tajikistan’s neighbours.

Given the trans-boundary nature of water, a coordinated effort is essential. The future of the Syr-Darya basin, controlled by Kyrgyzstan, and the Amu-Darya basin, controlled by Tajikistan, is critical for the whole region, affecting both the water-rich upstream nations, but also their comparatively water poor downstream neighbours Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan.

Ship cemetery and camels - Herman Veldhuizen

Ship cemetery and camels - Herman Veldhuizen

Since the Soviet system ended in 1991 – under which upstream nations exchanged their water for energy from downstream nations – it has been replaced by a precarious, ad hoc system. Despite agreements on paper, observers say there is a lack of cooperation in practice.

While both Kyrgystan and Tajikistan are concerned about flooding, downstream countries oppose upstream states developing hydropower facilities, for fear it might reduce their water access. Hydropower projects Kambarata I and II are being developed in Kyrgyzstan, while Tajikistan is planning the Rogun dam – both to the concern of their downstream neighbours.


Regional distrust has made foreign engagement hard, argues Mr Quinn-Judge. “There is plenty of concern internationally over water in the region”, but what is missing is an “efficient local interlocutor on the issue regarding how to implement change and [invest] money.”

But Dr Iskandar Abdullaev, who is based in Uzbekistan as regional advisor for the German Agency for Technical Cooperation’s Trans-boundary Water Management in Central Asia Programme says: “Solutions to the water problems must be found here, on the ground, in cooperation with national partners.” He warns that: “International organisations and partners come to Central Asia with ready-made solutions which do not take into account the realities of the region.”

There is however consensus that basic infrastructure needs serious attention. Since 1991, water networks have often been left to decay with pipes leaking – sometimes nearing collapse. Michael Emerson, a senior research fellow at the Centre for European Policy Studies, says the waste of water is the big issue. For example Turkmenistan’s key Kara Kum canal “is a giant evaporation pool”, due to lack of upkeep.

New man-made storage needs to be considered, says Dr Siegfried, but the key is efficient basin-wide management, taking into account future climate and economic uncertainties. Such cooperation would be a better use of both money and resources, he says.

Of course improving water management requires relevant expertise. One repeatedly hears that water specialists are lacking. Under the Soviet system “there were lots of water specialists, with know-how but [they] are now of retirement age, and there is no indication they have been replaced,” says Mr Quinn-Judge.

There is also arguably a need for better data. Dr Siegfried says remote sensing and data assimilation “hold great promise for increasing transparency, and reducing forecast uncertainty”. This “common base of information.” would help reduce distrust.

While better water management is often called for, the more fundamental issue of economic, and by association, agricultural reform, is less discussed.

Dr Amanda Wooden, a specialist in water politics at Bucknell University, puts it frankly. Some countries in the region need to change “what [crops] they produce and when” to address changes in water availability. “Together with requisite infrastructural work, making such a shift will require significant financial resources,” she says. But she warns that the longer such reforms are postponed, the harder it will be to respond to precipitation and supply changes.

Uzbekistan is an extreme case, with cotton accounting for around one third of its exports. It essentially exports the entire runoff of the Aral Sea basin in the form of embedded water in the cotton trade.

Dr Wooden predicts it may become increasingly difficult to feed the populations of some countries in the region, such as Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, as they face the combined impact of global climate change, micro climatic change, soil salinization, and global food price increases.

In Kyrgyzstan, in contrast, individual farmers can try to adapt by growing different crops, such as beans, as they face shorter growing seasons. They have greater flexibility to make such changes since they sell their own goods to market, rather than supply the state, as in countries like Uzbekistan.

But there is concern there too. Following a recent research trip to Kyrgyzstan, Dr Wooden says: “People are concerned at a very local level about water shortages and in the Ferghana Valley about whether they will have irrigation water for their plot of land.” This inevitably has huge political ramifications, she adds. But while some farmers are adapting in places like Kyrgyzstan, many more are more likely to migrate. 

The Aral Sea provides a stark warning of what can happen when water is misused. Despite attempts for revival, analysts are not optimistic that such a disaster can be reversed; it is effectively a toxic dessert.

Water scarcity has serious implications for economic security as water is essential to individual well being, industrial efficiency and water scarcity is potentially an obstacle to growth. The Soviet Union’s demise has left these young Central Asian countries focused on national interests, while failing to address the trans-boundary nature of water. Sticking to the current uncoordinated system could prove catastrophic for the whole region, its economy and sustainability. Effective management of water is possible, but will require investment but even more importantly will necessitate tough choices and change outside of the water industry.  Further delay in making such choices will only make the changes required more difficult to achieve.


Iain Watt is a partner at Irbaris, an expert advisory firm with extensive experience across the region of helping organisations assess the risks and opportunities they face due to climate change and water scarcity.