Central Asia’s Looming Water Wars

by Joshua Foust on 4/3/2008 · 6 comments

Fans of Thomas Homer-Dixon know the story—way back in 1992 (pdf), he was one of the early voices raising serious concern about conflicts arising from resource competition. And to bring things close to home for our readers, Tajikistan is thirsty, and this past winter has faced severe electricity shortages because its hydroelectric power plants froze. Indeed, since the Pamirs in Tajikistan see the head of so many rivers that flow into neighboring countries, Tajikistan has seen a rise in tension over water use rights and national boundaries along the Ferghana Valley.

Things moved a step forward last month: on March 26, about 150 Tajiks (both civilian and government) crossed the Tajik-Kyrgyz border and destroyed a Kyrgyz dam in the volatile Batken region that had blocked an irrigation canal for a nearby Tajik village. Though chased away by gun-wielding Kyrgyz border guards, the Tajiks claimed they were simply respecting a 1924 border, since they never ratified the 1958 one.

Given the other ethnic tensions simmering under the surface of Ferghana, this was fairly small potatoes, though the World Bank probably wishes its $300,000 dam hadn’t been destroyed. And a full discussion of the many issues facing the sometimes-ambiguous borders in Central is beyond this post (though our friends at neweurasia.net have done so quite brilliantly, and there is a blog devoted to the subject). But the border dispute is important for another reason: it represents one of the many lengths countries—or at least the people in countries—will go to achieve resource stability.

It’s not just in Ferghana that water tensions have popped up. We have previously explored one of the cross-border water crises Kazakhstan currently faces: the dispute with China over water rights in Lake Balkhash. Further west, Uncle Nazzy is building a big dam along the Syr Darya, causing grief with Kyrgyzstan. It is ostensibly for flood control, which is a valid concern, except that the river floods because of a Kyrgyz hydroelectric plant further upstream that builds up large reservoirs behind ice dams every winter.

Alas, none of these problems are simple to solve. The big elephant in the room in all of these discussions is the Aral Sea, which has been drained through exceedingly poor water management dating back to Khrushchev. The dispute over rights and use privileges is often not even resolved inside a country, either—in the American west, many states like Colorado have a long-standing feud with California, since outdated water laws give California first dibs to water in west-flowing tributaries like the Colorado River, which starves out cities in Colorado. So this is not something to be solved neatly or cleanly anytime soon… in fact, I daresay the problem of will get worse. One hopes it doesn’t escalate into outright violence.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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adam_kesher April 3, 2008 at 10:58 pm
Joshua Foust April 3, 2008 at 11:07 pm

Oi. I’m pretty embarrassed to admit I missed that (or forgot it, since NE is in my RSS Reader). Though, notably, Marat didn’t mention the problems in Batken—hardly a failing, since it hadn’t happened yet. I’m grasping for straws that I’m not a complete hack 🙂

Admiral April 3, 2008 at 11:43 pm

Read a great post on Aquanomics today regarding water rights in the U.S. that proposes the introduction of water markets run by efficacious institutions that would, hopefully, involve the raising of the price of water. Prices are the best allocator of scarce resources and this certainly includes water. Right now, government is getting its hands too dirty with its management perhaps — worldwide!

Awesomeo April 4, 2008 at 11:19 am
dave April 4, 2008 at 3:08 pm

We in the US truly have no idea how lucky we are to have water so readily available.

Awesomeo April 4, 2008 at 4:29 pm

Speak for yourself. i lived through a draught in dc about five years ago. We were even instructed not to water our lawns. We have suffered as much as anyone. If only we could make somekind of joshua foustian deal with the devil!

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