Central Asia could run out of drinking water this summer as rising global temperatures threaten the region with yet another severe drought that imperils the well-being of millions of people, the Climate Action Network (CAN EECCA) warned in a report on June 19.
“Central Asia is facing a severe water crisis that threatens not only economic development but also the lives of millions of people,” Baktygul Chynybaeva, communication manager of CAN EECCA wrote in a note. “The lack of fresh water due to climate change and inefficient water management poses significant challenges for the region’s countries. With the advent of summer, the capitals and many small towns of Central Asia are faced with an acute problem of access to drinking water.”
As followed by bne IntelliNews, Central Asia has already become victim to regular debilitating droughts. The lack of water saw a mass death of livestock after irrigation supplies ran dry in the summer of 2021.
In two Kazakh regions more than 2,000 domesticated farm animals died due to lack of water and forage, and in Kyrgyzstan farmers rioted in the northern region of Chui after lack of irrigation water threatened their crops.
A repetition of these scenes is on the cards again this year as the temperatures continue to rise. Southern Europe and Southeast Asia have already logged record-high temperatures in spring and the desert countries of Central Asia are much more exposed to drought than the relatively lush lands of Europe and Asia.
Kazakhstan is heavily reliant on water management and is particularly affected by the crisis. With only 2.8% of its territory covered by water and two-thirds consisting of desert zones, Kazakhstan heavily depends on water resources from neighbouring countries such as the mountainous republics of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. But due to dams and drought the volumes of water flowing into Kazakhstan from its neighbours could fall five-fold by 2030 to as little as 23 cubic kilometres – just enough to cover the Kazakh annual consumption of water – a cut-off level below which the country becomes uninhabitable.
Things have already become so bad that the government officials in Kazakhstan declared a state of emergency on June 9 after the Caspian Sea fell to a critically low level; it is the world’s largest enclosed body of water. The drop in the sea level was blamed on the lack of snowfall in the nearby mountains the preceding winter, increased water consumption and the retention of water for use at hydroelectric power stations in Russia. The Caspian Sea borders five countries: Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia and Turkmenistan. Of these, Kazakhstan’s section is the shallowest, which is what has prompted officials there to raise the alarm first of all.
Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, has been hit hard by the water crisis in recent years, revealing disparities in resource access within the city. Since May 2023, protests have erupted due to water cuts, with residents of two apartment buildings blocking a road to draw attention to their plight, CAN EECCA reports.
The protests coincided with an extreme heatwave that saw temperatures spike to 38-40 degrees Celsius.
The Water Management Service of Astana (WMSA) has introduced a daily update of supply controls in the capital since May 23 in an effort to cope with the crisis.
“Due to the growth of the city’s population and the intensive development of the capital, the enterprise faced a limitation of the design capacity for the drinking water production. As a result, from March 28, 2023, the enterprise was forced to introduce measures to regulate water pressure and set a schedule for its release,” the WMSA said.
The lack of drinking water is not limited to the capital; the situation in the smaller regional towns and cities across Kazakhstan is even worse. One of the practical problems the falling supplies has caused is in many older apartment blocks the pressure has dropped so much that water won’t rise to the upper stories, forcing residents to bring water to their apartments using buckets.
The provincial town of Atbasar has also been badly affected by water shortages due to population growth, infrastructure overload, design errors, deteriorating communications, insufficient groundwater surveys and outdated water supply systems, CAN EECCA says. In the Egindykolsky district of the Akmola region, a state of emergency was declared last month due to water scarcity caused by outdated water supply infrastructure.
The situation in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan is also bad, despite it being home to much of the water resources in the region thanks to the high Tien Shan mountain range which cuts the country in two.
The capital city of Bishkek has already had a water shortage crisis this year that left residents without access to clean drinking water for several days and sparked protests that disrupted the main roads, CAN EECCA reports. The city authorities have responded by urging the population to reduce water usage, avoid using drinking water for irrigation and temporarily halt water-intensive commercial activities.
CAN EECCA exports point to climate change as the source of the problems and the primary cause of the water shortage in Kyrgyzstan. Experts are advising adopting modern water-saving technologies, such as installing aerators, using motion sensors to control water flow, implementing two-button toilets, and employing water-use meters, but as one of the poorest of the Former Soviet Union (FSU) states the government has few resources to invest in these types of technology.
The regions is also heavily dependent on agriculture and modernising irrigation systems, particularly by adopting drip irrigation, is also crucial, says CAN EECCA.
“According to the World Bank, more than 300 villages in Kyrgyzstan have never had a drinking water supply system. In another 600, there is no clean water due to the deterioration of water pipes or the stoppage of work on installing water pipes. In total, there are about 1800 settlements in the country. About a million Kyrgyzstanis need help with access to clean drinking water. Currently, 40% of the country’s population drinks water from ditches, rivers, canals and springs and uses imported water,” CAN EECCA reports.
Uzbekistan has maybe the biggest challenge, as with 35mn citizens it is by far the most populous country in the region. It is also a famed entre of agriculture in the normally verdant Ferghana Valley, where cotton, fruit, berries and crops are grown.
Uzbekistan is ranked in the top 25 countries facing water scarcity out of a total of 164 ranked countries, according to the World Resources Institute. An Uzbek diplomat speaking to bne IntelliNews this week said: “The temperatures in Tashkent have already hit 45 degrees Celsius, and it’s still spring.”
Like Kazakhstan, only 4.92% of Uzbekistan is covered with water and the centre of the republic consists of very large deserts. Uzbekistan’s total water demand is 50-60 cubic kilometres a year, of which only 12.2 cubic kilometres are found on its own territory. The country relies heavily on water from its neighbours and the Tien Shan and Pamir mountains.
To make things worse, Uzbekistan has the youngest population in the FSU with a fertility rate well above 2 that is only adding pressure to the demand for water. By 2030, the population is projected to reach 40mn that will further reduce available water resources by 7-8 cubic kilometres, exacerbating the already limited supply.
“Under these conditions, the shortage of water resources will increase by 2030 from the current 13-14% to 44-46%, which will slow down the development of agriculture and other industries,” CAN EECCA said.
The authorities have already introduced drinking water ratioing in the capital Tashkent and in many regions in order to manage the dwindling supplies.
“Currently, drinking water is not cut off only in Tashkent; in almost all regions, water is often supplied at a particular time. In many regions, especially in remote areas, residents are forced to buy water and make efforts to use it economically,” Nargiz Kosimova, head of the Ecologist NGO, told CAN EECCA.
And on top of the climate crisis, Uzbekistan had some really bad luck in May 2020. The ageing state of the water infrastructure was highlighted when the Sardoba dam burst in Uzbekistan, flooding nearby villages and causing nearly a billion dollars' worth of damage.
Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan evacuated 70,000 and 5,400 people respectively from the Syr Darya river basin after the dam burst on the Uzbek side of the reservoir on May 1 just before 06:00 local time, when heavy rains and stormy winds caused the Sardoba dam wall to partially collapse.
Water scarcity is already a pressing issue in many regions of Uzbekistan, including Karakalpakstan, home to the Aral Sea, which has already almost entirely evaporated. The lack of irrigation has already affected its famed agricultural production, a major source of foreign exchange earnings for the country, and the state is increasingly struggling to meet the domestic drinking water demand of the population.
The Aral Sea is an ecological disaster and has already almost entirely evaporated due to global warming.
CAN EECCA recommends three courses of action to deal with the growing crisis.
The first is to increase co-operation and coordination between the Central Asian states.
“The water resources of Central Asia, such as the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers, are transboundary and involve joint management. Countries must develop and implement agreed action plans based on fair and efficient use of water resources,” says CAN EECCA. “However, regional structures dealing with water issues need more stakeholder trust.”
Water management in the region has long been a bone of contention between the five ‘Stans, which are more focused on economic development than climate change. For example, Tajikistan has pushed ahead with the development of the huge Rogun dam hydropower project, which will allow the impoverished country to add to its income by exporting electricity, but at the cost of reducing the waterflow to its neighbours. Many consider the dam to be a white elephant and Tajikistan doesn’t have the capital to complete the project, which is nevertheless partially operational.
A second step would be to use the existing resources more efficiently.
“Countries in the region should make efforts to improve the efficiency of irrigation systems by introducing advanced technologies and water management practices,” CAN EECCA recommends. “This may include upgrading irrigation systems, using drip irrigation, and adopting modern agricultural practices that will reduce water loss and increase crop yields. In addition, it is essential to develop infrastructure for rainwater collection and storage, as well as industrial and domestic use.”
The third direction is to develop alternative water sources to resolve the water crisis in Central Asia.
“One of the possible ways is the development of underground water resources and the use of seawater. The region’s countries may also consider opportunities for co-operation in transboundary water projects,” CAN EECCA says.
However, this solution has limited potential. The only two countries that have access to a sea are Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, which both are littoral to the Caspian Sea. The other three ‘Stans are landlocked, bordered by Russia, China and Southern Asia and lie thousands of kilometres from the world’s oceans. Indeed, Uzbekistan, which is facing the biggest water shortfalls, is one of only two double-landlocked countries in the world.
cover photo: cc-by-2.0, cropped