Russia wades into Central Asian water dispute

By JOHN C.K. DALY, UPI International Correspondent  |  Jan. 30, 2009 at 5:25 PM
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WASHINGTON, Jan. 30 (UPI) -- An integral element of the new Eurasian "great game" between Russia and the United States is a tussle for control of the Caspian's hydrocarbon riches and those of former Soviet republics farther east. But Russia is making a diplomatic play on another key resource -- water.

Russian and foreign energy consortia remain largely focused on the region's rich oil and natural gas reserves. Within the "Stans" -- former Soviet republics Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan -- an added element in the matrix is water, used by Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan largely to generate hydroelectric power, while the downstream states of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan view it as a resource for supporting agriculture rather than an energy source.

In the 17 years since the Soviet Union collapsed, the Central Asian nations emerging from the debris have yet to resolve the issue of an equitable distribution of the arid region's most precious resource. The most significant amounts of oil and gas are found in the westerly "Stans" of Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan; the region's aquatic reserves are largely under the control of the most easterly (and poor) mountainous states, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, which between them account for more than 85 percent of the region's groundwater reserves, primarily in the form of alpine glacial runoff that feeds the region's two largest rivers, the Syr Darya and Amu Darya.

Earlier this week Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, during a state visit to Uzbekistan, weighed in on the issue, telling journalists: "The construction of hydropower stations in Central Asia should meet the interests of all neighboring countries and should correspond to international rights' norms of transboundary rivers' usage. It is impossible to act in isolation. It can cause tensions which can only be solved not by economic but by political means. ...

"Hydroelectric power stations in the Central Asian region must be built with consideration of the interests of all neighboring states," he said, adding, "If there is no common accord of all parties, Russia will refrain from participation in such projects."

Medvedev's comments delighted his hosts, who have argued that if Tajikistan proceeds with constructing its planned Rogun hydroelectric cascade, which would be Central Asia's largest, it would severely impact the water needs of downstream states. Uzbek President Islam Karimov stated: "I would like to especially speak on one issue. Uzbekistan counts on Russia's well thought-out and considered position on issues relating to the implementation of hydropower projects in the Central Asian region."

Sayfullo Safarov, deputy director of Tajikistan's Center for Strategic Studies, opined that Medvedev's statement "regarding the region's water question is most likely a diplomatic dodge of this problem," adding that while Moscow is interested in normal relations with all Central Asian nations, the water issue remains today the "most painful" unresolved issue in fostering the relations.

Building Rogun is beyond Dushanbe's capabilities; the government was forced to announce a tender for participation in the project, because the cost of the work was appraised at $5 billion to $6 billion.

Medvedev's statements caused Tajikistan to deliver a diplomatic protest, fearing that Moscow was favoring Tashkent's position over its own. There are, however, alternatives to gigantic Soviet-legacy projects like Rogun, first begun in 1976, such as smaller, more numerous hydroelectric facilities that would alleviate many of the downstream nations' concerns and have been advocated by Western specialists with such institutions as the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund and the Asian Development Bank.

The equitable division of these waters remains at the heart of the contentions, with the downstream agrarian states both seeking regular water discharges for irrigation while maintaining that water is not a resource for which they should be charged. In turn, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan maintain that if fiscal or energy assistance is not received to tide them over through the bitter winter months, they will release the water during the autumn and winter to generate electricity as they have no other power options, whatever the agrarian concerns of their downstream neighbors.

It is not as if the Stans have not attempted to grapple with the issue. In 1992 the five countries established the Interstate Coordinating Water Commission to formulate a regional solution to the problem, but despite more than 50 meetings during the last 16 years, little of note has been accomplished, leaving each country to pursue its own interests or bilateral relations.

The opposite negotiating positions are the Kyrgyz and Tajik insistence that water is as fungible and marketable as their neighbors' hydrocarbons, while Uzbekistan is increasingly supporting the position that the Amu Darya and Syr Darya are in fact "transboundary" rivers, which accordingly makes them regional and international rather than bilateral issues. While there are more than 263 "transboundary" river basins worldwide, there are currently very few international agreements for integrated water management, and Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, both anxious to further develop their hydroelectric potential, are feeling unjustly pressured by their more prosperous downstream neighbors.

What is lacking is money and vision -- Dushanbe recently admitted it could contribute only $150 million toward Rogun's costs. If Russia and the United States can provide both funding and expertise for smaller, more environmentally friendly alternative power generating projects that meet indigenous power needs rather than remaining fixated on developing hydrocarbon reserves for export or massive Stalinist power complexes, the potential benefits would range from easing local tensions over water use to providing electricity for export to Afghanistan. While such projects would not be cheap, in the battle for Afghan hearts and minds, illumination and warmth may well prove more potent (and inexpensive) weaponry in battling the Taliban than any projected NATO troop surges.

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