Water Shortages In Central Asia Puts Historic Alliance To The Test

Water Shortages In Central Asia Puts Historic Alliance To The Test

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By RFE/RL staff – Aug 26, 2023, 12:00 PM CDT

  • Severe droughts in Central Asia have led to significant water shortages, affecting farming in the region and causing tensions between Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan.
  • Despite claims by the Kyrgyz Agriculture Ministry of fulfilling its water obligations, many in Kazakhstan feel they are being unfairly punished.
  • The situation has escalated, leading to extended delays at key border crossings, further straining the relationship between the two nations.
Water Shortage

The video recorded on a Kazakh farmer’s smartphone reached the Internet like a distress signal.

“Zhambyl Province. Sugar beet. There is no water. The beet has died,” the voice said over footage of failed crops in this traditionally fertile corner of southern Kazakhstan.

As a baking July segued into August, beet farmers in the province were indeed without water — irrigation water that they would otherwise have received from a reservoir in neighboring Kyrgyzstan.

Though not all the farmers were blaming Kyrgyzstan.

Some were aiming their complaints at local authorities, an alarming development for authorities in the Kazakh capital, Astana.

“Why do we need this kind of governor?” vented one farmer, during a visit by RFE/RL correspondents to the area.

The Kyrgyz Agriculture Ministry argues it has fulfilled all its obligations to its downstream neighbor but maintains that in a year of extended droughts and high summer temperatures, there simply isn’t any extra water to share.

The Kirov water reservoir in its northwestern Talas region is carrying a fraction of last year’s volume, the ministry said, and is only 3 percent of its capacity.

Satellite images of Kirov from this year and last year appear to support that assertion, while farmers in northern Kyrgyzstan, too, have been complaining about a lack of water.

But many Kyrgyz feel Kazakhstan has decided to punish them anyway.

Since August 20, a queue of hundreds of cargo-carrying vehicles has formed at the Ak-Tilek border crossing, with another 100-plus line emerging at the Ken-Bulan border crossing in the days that followed.

Truckers at Ak-Tilek say Kazakh border officials are slowing the passage of vehicles to around six per day. The usual pace is about 20 per hour.

Kazakh Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Yerulan Zhamaubaev told journalists on August 23 that Kazakhstan’s Committee for National Security had been conducting anti-narcotics operations on the country’s shared border.

He did not say how long the delays at the border might last.

As if that were not enough, on August 24 the office of Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev suddenly announced that Toqaev would host Emomali Rahmon, the leader of Kyrgyzstan’s bitter regional rival, Tajikistan, on August 25-26.

A coincidence? Perhaps.

But past form suggests that when Astana is not happy with Bishkek, it makes its feelings known.

‘When There Is Not Enough Water, Tensions Arise’

Tensions over water in Central Asia are not new, although regional cooperation as a whole has improved since 2016, when Shavkat Mirziyoev came to power in Uzbekistan.

Mirziyoev’s predecessor, Islam Karimov, had been notoriously prickly on the subject, even warning of the potential for military conflict over access to transboundary resources such as water.

But this year’s droughts have stretched existing arrangements to their limits while hammering farming in the region.

It was Mirziyoev’s office that sounded the alarm in April, with a presidential decree rolling out emergency water-saving measures in lieu of forecasts that the region’s Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers would see their water levels drop between 10 percent and 20 percent this year.

At the beginning of the year, there had been expectations of relatively strong inflows into the region’s mountain rivers, but “they did not come to pass,” according to Yevgeny Simonov, international coordinator of the Rivers without Boundaries Coalition, a nonprofit formerly based in Russia.

Although “the trend toward a reduction in the volume of rivers is common to all river basins” in the region, several rivers rising in Kyrgyzstan’s mountains and flowing into Kazakhstan — the Syrdarya, Chu, and Talas rivers — seem to have notably reduced flows, Simonov told RFE/RL.

“Perhaps in the first half of the year, [Central Asian] countries spent more water than they could afford in such a drought,” Simonov argued.

“Almost always when there is not enough water, tensions arise between neighbors. The mechanisms for their resolution leave much to be desired,” he added.

At least one Kyrgyz official, irrigation expert Ulan Chortombaev, has already linked the stoppages at the border to the water issue.

But on August 23, Kyrgyz Agriculture Ministry official Almazbek Sokeyev claimed his Kazakh colleagues “viewed [the situation] with understanding” after talks and had assured him the problem at the border was completely unrelated to the water cutoff.

Bishkek had warned Astana in negotiations earlier in the summer that water would be a problem, but maintains it had fulfilled its quota for the provision by early August, triggering the end of outflows from the parched reservoir.

Kazakhstan has stopped short of accusing Kyrgyzstan of playing water games, but an August 9 Ecology Ministry statement highlighted the discrepancy between volumes in the Kirov water reservoir this year (32.48 million cubic meters on August 9) and last year — some 144.8 million cubic meters more than that total.

“According to the 2022 schedule, Kazakhstan’s requirements from the Talas River in August were 45 cubic meters [of water] per second. [Now] no water is effectively being supplied,” the ministry said at the time, pledging to continue negotiations with Kyrgyzstan.

In Zhambyl Province, which sources 80 percent of its water from Kyrgyzstan, authorities have declared emergency situations in six districts while pledging compensation to farmers set to lose 25 percent to 30 percent more of their harvest compared to last year.

On the Kyrgyz side of Ak-Tilek, meanwhile, where truckers working between the two countries have been offered tents by Kyrgyz officials, there were few doubts that the flow of water and the flow of goods were interlinked.

“The Kyrgyz side is working perfectly. The Kazakh side is a real pain,” said a driver named Igor, speaking to RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service.

“It’s not official. But [people] say [the border delay] is because Kyrgyzstan has stopped sending water.”

2017 Redux?

In terms of language, culture, and tradition, Kazakhs and Kyrgyz are two of Central Asia’s most similar peoples. But the relationship at the political level is not particularly warm.

The nadir for bilateral ties in recent times was in 2017, when Kyrgyzstan’s outgoing leader Almazbek Atambaev launched a spectacular tirade at Kazakhstan’s first president, Nursultan Nazarbaev, whom he accused of interfering in the country’s upcoming election.

The then-Kyrgyz president depicted Nazarbaev as an aging autocrat in the vein of a Mongol khan and said Kazakhstan’s elite was robbing its population.

The response was swift, and — just like this week — long lines soon began appearing on the Kyrgyz side of the pair’s shared border as the Kazakh side announced an extended operation to combat smuggling.

Atambaev rather carelessly suggested the logjams would soon disappear if Kyrgyzstan “turned off” Kazakhstan’s water for two or three days.

But the erratic politician did not carry through with the threat, and even he may have realized he had overplayed his hand.

Kyrgyzstan’s border crossings with Kazakhstan are an economic lifeline for exporters in the north of the country, and the logical jumping-off points for goods heading even further north to Russia.

The fact that both countries are members of the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union has never prevented Kazakhstan throttling trade at the frontier in the past.

This might explain why Kyrgyz social media users have expressed anger at notions their country is using water to exert leverage over a more powerful neighbor.

One article published on the Asia Times website on July 31 and subsequently translated and republished by Kazakh media suggested exactly that, linking so-called Kyrgyz “pressure” to Russia’s desire for Kazakhstan to do more to help it evade sanctions over the Ukraine war.

Yet that somewhat fanciful argument is undermined by images not just of Kirov, but of Kyrgyzstan’s largest reservoir, Toktogul, which services the vital Toktogul hydropower plant.

To be sure, water in Central Asia is not well managed. But this year, there is simply less to go around.

By RFE/RL

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RFE/RL staff

RFE/RL staff

RFE/RL journalists report the news in 21 countries where a free press is banned by the government or not fully established. We provide what many…

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