The mountain river in twilight, Almaty area, AssyAfter emerging from the implosion of the USSR more than two decades ago, the Central Asian basin has had more than its fair share of problems, including hyperinflation, stalled political reforms, terrorism, rising drug use and unsettled borders.

Looming above all these however is water – the most divisive issue in Central Asia. The problem is the region’s inequitable distribution of hydrological resources – alpine Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have a surfeit of water, while downstream Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan are water stressed.

At the heart of the looming disputes are the 1,500-mile Amu Darya and 1,380-mile Syr Darya rivers. The Amu Darya’s headwaters in the form of the Panj River arise in Tajikistan, while the Syr Darya originates in Kyrgyzstan. Besides river water, Tajikistan also contains many glaciers, of which the 270-square-mile Fedenko glacier is the largest in the world outside the Polar Regions. The glacier melt of the two rivers, which originate in the Pamir and Tien Shan mountain ranges, meander westwards through Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan before emptying into the largely desiccated Aral Sea.

Like so many problems in the post-Soviet space, Central Asia’s water issues date back to the early Soviet era, when beginning in 1918, efforts began to divert Central Asian water toward agriculture to gain a market share in the global cotton trade, which in the 1940s led to the building of a massive network of irrigation project, launching a sustained agricultural development program that was to last to the end of the Soviet era and beyond.

The Amu Darya and Syr Darya water flows, whose combined flow before massive Soviet agricultural projects were implemented equaled the Nile, are unique in that, until 1991, they were part of a single country, the Soviet Union, with water management policy directed by Moscow. The amount of water taken from the Amu Darya and Syr Darya doubled between 1960 and 2000, allowing cotton production to nearly double in the same period. By the 1980s, nearly 90 percent of water use in Central Asia was directed toward agriculture, primarily cotton production, with the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya supplying nearly 75 percent of the water flow.

It is sustaining this Soviet cotton agricultural legacy that so concerns Uzbekistan with the water policies of its upstream neighbors Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

Shortly after independence, the five countries agreed to maintain the Soviet-era water quota system, but competing national needs rendered the agreement unworkable. Further aggravating problems surrounding the headwaters of the Amu Darya and Syr Darya, in the wake of the 1992-97 Tajik civil war and the decline of Kyrgyzstan’s economy, aquatic facilities fell into disrepair. Following independence, Central Asian leaders recognized the problem of developing a new, post-Soviet regional water policy; in 1993 the Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Tajik, Turkmen and Uzbek presidents established the Interstate Commission for Water Coordination to harmonize their water policies. But while the ICWC has since held more than 50 meetings, little has been accomplished; in the ensuring vacuum, each nation has increasingly developed nationalist policies, often to the detriment of its neighbors.

The failure to develop a coordinated approach while staying wedded to fraying, inefficient Soviet-era water policies is most dramatically illustrated in the shrinkage of the Aral Sea. The Aral was once the world’s fourth-largest inland sea with an area of 28,000 square miles. Its slow demise began in the early 1960s, when massive Soviet Central Asian canal projects siphoned off increasing amounts of the Amu Darya’s and Syr Darya’s waters into inefficiently irrigated fields, where increasing demands of diverted water for cotton production occurred in Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. The rising diversion of the rivers’ waters eventually shrank the Aral Sea to approximately 8,920 square miles, separating it into the northern “Small Sea” in Kazakhstan and the southern “Large Sea” in Uzbekistan, while the toxic saline and fertilizer-laced wastelands uncovered by the sea’s retreat blew throughout Eurasia.

The rivers together contain more than 90 percent of Central Asia’s available water resources but hydrocarbon poor upstream states Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are interested in building massive hydroelectric projects that the downstream countries fear will lessen water flow. Kyrgyzstan wants to build the Kambarata hydroelectric cascade, Tajikistan the massive 3,600-megawatt Vakhsh River Rogun dam, which downstream Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan all fear could damage their agriculture. Rogun, a Soviet legacy, was begun in 1976 and 44-50 percent of the station was completed before 1991. The project was recommenced in 2007.

Driving this hydroelectric construction are economic concerns. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, facing rising natural gas prices from Uzbekistan, see increasing their hydroelectric potential as a growth sector in the form of electricity exports to South Asia. This is turn means that water discharges for power generation increasingly take precedence over the agricultural concerns of their downstream neighbors, with increased water discharges in the winter months for electricity generation rather than the spring and summer for the irrigation needs of downstream neighbors.

Tajikistan has few immediate options but to attempt to develop its hydropower assets. Only 7 percent of Tajikistan’s land is arable, and the U.S. government estimated that the country’s 2007 oil production was a paltry 280 barrels per day. In 2006 Tajikistan produced only one billion cubic feet (bcf) of natural gas, forcing it to import 44 bcf to meet demand. The hydrocarbon situation is equally dire in neighboring Kyrgyzstan, whose 15 hydroelectric stations generate 92.5 percent of domestically consumed electricity.
Overall, Uzbekistan consumes more than 50 percent of the two rivers’ flow for its cotton production, while in Turkmenistan, the Amu Darya’s waters are used exclusively for agriculture as it flows onward through Uzbekistan to the Aral Sea. Kazakhstan’s water relations with neighboring states are determined by its significant dependence on their river flows, which account for 44 percent of Kazakhstan’s surface water resources.

Fortunately for the Stans an interested outside powers a diplomatic solution exists – the United Nation Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses, adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in 1997 after 27 years of negotiation, whose Article 5 states, “Watercourse States shall in their respective territories utilize an international watercourse in an equitable and reasonable manner.”

As if underscoring the intricacies of aquatic issues, the convention has yet to enter into force, as to enter into force, it requires ratification by 35 countries but only 29 have done so. While Uzbekistan has ratified the convention, it is the only Central Asian country to do so.

What is certain is that the worldwide problem of transnational rivers will only intensify in the future. In September 2012, during a meeting of 40 former leaders in Oslo, former Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien somberly noted that the world needs to find the equivalent of the flow of 20 Nile Rivers by 2025 to grow enough food to feed a rising global population and avoid conflicts over water scarcity. According to UN statistics, more than 80 nations in the world face water scarcity, while drought and desertification threaten the livelihoods of more than 1.2 billion people.

All nations interested in Central Asian security should ratify and urge Central Asian nations to support the UN Convention, and broaden investment beyond energy to improving regional agriculture and lessening water use, as the Central Asian nations themselves have been unable to implement such policies. Otherwise, along with the drug trade and extremism, water conflict could become the third horseman of a regional apocalypse.