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Trans-boundary water cooperation in Central Asia: do European experiences help to solve the problem?

International trans-boundary water resources are the most important type of natural resources. A rational and equitable use of water can provide prosperity and security to individual states and entire regions. Therefore, the effective use of trans-boundary waters is of particular relevance today. This is due to the fact that these resources have the capacity not only to promote regional cooperation and intensify the integration processes, but also may act as a source of potential conflicts.

At the end of 20th century, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the efficient use of transboundary water resources arose on the agenda of Central Asian states and shortly became one of the most pressing issues to be addressed in order to ensure a peaceful and progressive development of Central Asian nations.

There are 276 rivers in the world which cross several countries. Nine of them lie in Central Asia. These are: Amu-darya, Sir-darya, Zarafshan, Chu, Talas, Ili, Murgab, Tedjen and the Irtysh river. The Amu-darya and the Sir-darya have great strategic importance because they provide the Aral Sea with water. These rivers also play an important role in the agriculture, industry, services, and city-building in Central Asian countries.

However, the adoption of politically driven short-sighted decisions taken by the Soviet Union authority in the past under the quinquennial plans for the socialistic development with the aim to «catch up and overtake the West» and to reach out «worldwide triumph of communism» led to extensive interventions into natural processes, wasteful use of water resources and dramatically altered the flow regime of the Amu-darya and Sir-darya rivers over the centuries. These factors have caused a greater environmental catastrophe related to the desiccation of the Aral Sea. Water shortages, loss of cultivated land, a sharp decrease in flora and fauna, climate change, as well as accelerated melting of mountain glaciers in the Pamir and Tien Shan form a short list of consequences related to the environmental degradation of the Aral Sea. The socioeconomic and ecological consequences of this tragedy, such as high-level droughts, unusually warm springs, increase in salinity and toxicity of herbicidal and pesticide-contaminated water and an increased number of dust storms are not only felt in Central Asia itself, but also far beyond in other countries.

Despite these problems, Central Asian republics are continuing using water resources on the basis of purely national interests, often without considering the interests of neighbouring countries located in the lower parts of the rivers’ basin, and the whole region. Upstream countries of the region (Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan) have high water consumption for energy purposes while downstream countries (Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan) suffer from water shortages for agricultural use. This is especially true when considering issues of food security, which are directly dependent on the availability of irrigated land and sufficient water during the growing season. At the same time, there is an increasing number of projects on the construction of large hydraulic structures (mega dams and hydroelectric power stations) on rivers in the upper part of the basin. The implementation of such projects can increase water shortages and potentially lead to catastrophic human-made environmental and social impacts, which ultimately threaten sustainable development in the region.

In fact, transboundary water conflicts are one of the most serious problems in the world. Over the last twenty years, several developing countries have already faced trans-boundary water problems. However, these problems are still far from being resolved. Water management and water conflict resolution is placed high on the political agenda of all countries and is an ongoing issue for political debates. Particularly, competition over freshwater resources is consistently growing in Central Asia.

International law offers a wide range of mechanisms and norms to regulate the utilization and management of water in order to avoid and settle disputes and to transform competition into cooperative development paths. In Europe, where one finds a large number of trans-boundary rivers, successful mechanisms for effective trans-boundary water resource management were formed through peaceful means. This happened through strong commitment to international law and through sensitivity towards the interests of countries in river basins, which certainly deserve special attention. Investigating the case of Danube, the Rhine and other cases and implementing the best European experiences would play a crucial role in resolving transboundary water problems in Central Asia. Hence, joint research between European and Central Asian scholars on the issue is needed.

SEnECA blog contribution by Jean Monnet Chairman Prof. Khaydarali Yunusov, University of World Economy and Diplomacy in Tashkent.