Central Asian river levels poised for dramatic plunge, forcing urgent measures

Central Asian river levels poised for dramatic plunge, forcing urgent measures
Map showing location of Aral Sea and watersheds of Amu Darya (orange) and Syr Darya (yellow) which flow into what's left of the decimated body of water. / Shannon1, cc-by-sa 4.0
By Eurasianet April 5, 2023

Uzbekistan says it expects the volume of water in the region’s two main rivers to shrink by 20% in the coming irrigation season as compared to a recent multi-year average.

In an emergency presidential decree on economising water that came into effect on April 3, a 10-15% reduction of the volume of the Syr Darya is forecast, while the amount of water in the Amu Darya is seen contracting by an even more dramatic 15-20%. Both rivers once flowed into the Aral Sea, 90% of which has vanished since 1960.

This bleak forecast is part of a long-term pattern and is attributed by experts to poor water management, outdated irrigation methods and a rapid increase in consumption caused by population growth. To make matters worse, Afghanistan has said it has this year made important strides toward completion of a 285-kilometre canal that is intended for the irrigation of up to 550,000 hectares of farming land. The Qosh Tepa Canal is to be filled with water drawn from the Amu Darya. 

The Uzbek government is eager to be seen taking the initiative in preventing a dramatic fallout from this imminent collapse in river water levels.

The office of President Shavkat Mirziyoyev noted that 25% of irrigated areas in Uzbekistan currently benefit from water-saving technologies and that this figure should and will be expanded. Around 3bn cubic metres of water were saved in 2022 through economising, the decree approved by Mirziyoyev stated. Qosh Tepa Canal is expected to draw some 10bn cubic metres of water from the Amu Darya every year, so effectively implemented projects could in theory restore a degree of balance. 

Going forward, countries in the region may need to cut back on the agreed amounts they are taking from the Amu Darya and Syr Darya. Under a deal thrashed out in January under the auspices of the Interstate Coordination Water Commission of Central Asia, the five member states collectively agreed to the withdrawal of 55.4bn cubic metres of water from the Amu Darya and 4.2bn cubic metres of water from the Syr Darya through to October 1. Tajikistan alone, a country with one-quarter the population of Afghanistan, has an allowance to take 9.8bn cubic metres from the Amu Darya. Uzbekistan’s quota is for 23.6bn cubic metres from the Amu Darya and 3.3bn cubic metres from the Syr Darya.

The main measures outlined in Mirziyoyev’s decree envision water users – farmers, ostensibly – being provided with subsidies and preferential loans to fund the installation of water-saving equipment, such as drip-irrigation technology

There is to be some stick along with carrot.

Another initiative being piloted in the Kasbi district of the southern Qashqadaryo region will see the digitalisation of equipment used to channel water from rivers to users. A digital information system called Suv Hisobi will tally exactly how much water is being allocated. The system will be introduced to the whole country from January 2025. The rationale of all this is to usher in an effective way of charging money from users of water. 

Proposals are furthermore in the works to introduce penalties for wasting water and the illegal use of water equipment.

While the management of water resources is something within the relative control of governments and multilateral organisations in the region, other challenges are not. Few pose more anticipated dangers than climate change. The World Bank has taken a leading role in warning of what may be around the corner unless there are significant investments made into bolstering resilience.

“If no action is taken, economic damages from droughts and floods in Central Asia are projected to be up to 1.3% of [gross domestic product] per annum, while crop yields are expected to decrease by 30% by 2050, leading to around 5.1mn internal climate migrants by that time,” the World Bank has said.

This article first appeared on Eurasianet here.