Central Asia’s Water Woes

by Joshua Foust on 7/26/2011

We don’t cover it obsessively, but we here at Registan.net have been keeping a wary eye on the deteriorating state of regional water arrangements and conflicts in Central Asia. Just about every author here, from Michael Hancock to Misha, has written at some point about how management issues are sparking worry and have the potential to lead to violence.

So I was happy to see RFE/RL’s Muhammad Tahir write a really detailed article about what’s looming on the horizon:

As demand increases and the volume of water in the [Amu Darya] continues to shrink, disputes among the stakeholders over water management are becoming more and more complicated.

Tajikistan’s foreign minister, Hamrokhon Zarifi, told journalists at a July 18 press conference in Dushanbe that “differences of opinion” regarding the river were affecting the nature of overall relations between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, and have not improved.

At the center of their disagreement lies Tajikistan’s plan to complete the construction of Rogun, a Soviet-era hydropower dam that is being built on the Vaksh River, one of the source of the Amu Darya.

If completed to its full specifications, said Johannes Linn, senior resident scholar at the Washington-based Emerging Markets Forum, “it would be the highest hydroelectric dam in the world, and this is what makes Uzbekistan concerned.”

“The problem, obviously, is that Uzbekistan feels threatened by what they regard as a potential control of Tajikistan over the downstream water resources and do not want Tajikistan to be able to exercise such control,” Linn said, “while on the other hand Tajikistan feels that it is essential for its long-term development that it uses the water resources at its disposal that are generated in the country to the extent possible — and the intention being without harming downstream neighbors.”

While this is excellent, it’s not moving the needle terribly far. I wish Muhammed had a chance to explore more the problems facing Afghanistan’s water needs, which complicate the Uzbek-Tajik water dispute. Because the route of the Pyanj River, which becomes the Amu Darya downstream and defines the Afghan-Tajik border, moves around there are now Afghan settlements (pdf) on the Tajik side of the border. The Asia Development Bank is trying to develop a regional framework for managing the water supply, but it’s very slow going.

But this isn’t really a complaint about Tahir’s piece, which is very good. There’s just more to this, a lot more, that actually makes the situation seem even less hopeful than he points out. Which is really too bad, because such an important phenomenon deserves much more attention.


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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on Registan.net.

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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