PANNIER: Central Asia’s population is growing, but its water resources are rapidly shrinking

PANNIER: Central Asia’s population is growing, but its water resources are rapidly shrinking
Without major action, Central Asian's fortunes could dry up. / THIS IS ZUN:
By Bruce Pannier December 8, 2023

Alarm bells over serious water shortages are going off across Central Asia. It no longer seems a question of whether major water shortages will become the norm in the region. It appears to be a question of when.

On November 29, Uzbekistan’s President Shavkat Mirziyoyev declared that for his country, 2024 will be a transition year for moving over to emergency water saving measures.

Mirziyoyev cited figures showing that “as a result of climate change, the volume of water resources in Uzbekistan has decreased by 20% over the past three years.”

The data also forecast that by 2030, Uzbekistan could face a deficit of some 15bn cubic metres (bcm) of water.

Mirziyoyev noted that some 90% of the water Uzbekistan uses, around 46 bcm, goes to agriculture, and that some 12 bcm of that water is wasted due to the country’s dilapidated irrigation system.

His press service released information showing that overall, the Uzbek economy loses $5bn in revenue per year as a consequence of water loss.

Mirziyoyev gave orders for a “shock” programme to be applied in which some 1,500 kilometres (932 miles) of Uzbekistan’s canals will in 2024 be given a concrete lining. In 2025, the lining is to be added to some 2,000 kilometres more.

The Eurasian Development Bank (EDB), which is a multinational development bank and operates in the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) region, recently released a report on Central Asia that observed that the “development of agriculture [in the region] is only possible through irrigation.”

The EDB’s information on irrigated land in Central Asia shows that in Turkmenistan it accounts for 100% of agricultural output, in Uzbekistan 87%, in Kyrgyzstan 85%, in Tajikistan 82% and in Kazakhstan 40%.

Farmers and officials in Kyrgyzstan have been complaining about the decrepit state of the country’s agricultural canal system since drought struck in 2021.

Climate change in Central Asia, as Mirziyoyev mentioned, is indeed already manifesting itself in reduced precipitation and drought.

Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan have experienced three dry summers in a row. They serve as a warning and, according to some forecasts, worse is on the way, and possibly very soon.

In the summer, Kyrgyzstan was forced to halt water flows into the Talas River that flows into southern Kazakhstan, leaving Kazakh farmers in Zhambyl Province without water for their crops.

Kyrgyz authorities pointed out that water levels at the Kirov reservoir that releases water into the Talas River fell drastically in 2023. At one point, in August, the reservoir had less than 3% of its average volume of water.

Kyrgyzstan’s Deputy Minister of Natural Resources, Asel Raimkulova, said on November 23 that forecasting indicated that the number of glaciers in mountainous Kyrgyzstan would fall by half by 2050, and that by the end of the century, the glaciers may disappear entirely.

However, officials at the Kyrgyz Ministry of Natural Resources said they believed the “process may happen much faster than predicted.”

The problem Kazakhstan has this year experienced with transnational rivers is likely to continue, and spread to other regional countries. In his November 29 comments, Mirziyoyev explained that “20% of [Uzbekistan’s] water resources, or 10 billion cubic metres, originate within the country, while the remaining 41 bcm comes from the territories of neighbouring states.”

Compounding the dilemma is a new claimant for water from the Amu-Darya, one of Central Asia’s two great rivers (the other is the Syr-Darya), in the shape of Afghanistan.

The Amu-Darya, which makes up most of the frontier between Central Asia and Afghanistan, originates in Tajikistan, which, like Kyrgyzstan, is mountainous, and is the only country in Central Asia so far showing few signs of water shortages. Downstream countries Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have liberally used water from the Amu-Darya for decades for their agricultural lands, much of it for cotton growing.

Afghanistan's Taliban administration has released promotional videos praising the Qosh Tepa canal, but not addressing the headache it will cause the country's Central Asian neighbours.

Afghanistan to now has never taken advantage of its right to a share of water from the Amu-Darya. However, its Taliban administration announced last year that they had started construction of the 285-kilometre-long Qosh Tepa canal in northern Afghanistan. The canal will draw water from the Amu-Darya.

The EDB’s chief economist, Yevgeny Vinokurov, told a roundtable discussion in Almaty in mid-November that once it is completed five years from now and starts to take large volumes of water from the Amu-Darya, Central Asia will enter a period of “chronic water deficit”.

The Qosh Tepa project is actually ahead of schedule. As of the summer, it was more than one-third constructed.

Vinokurov said Afghanistan plans to take some 10 bcm once the canal begins functioning. He pointed out that in previous years of normal precipitation, the Amu-Darya carried up to 80 bcm of water annually but “in dry years” had 40-45 bcm.

The Syr-Darya, though not affected by the canal, is seeing a steady reduction in water, added Vinokurov, calculating that depleted water supplies from the Amu-Darya and Syr-Darya together would impact some 61mn of Central Asia’s 75mn people.

Overuse of water from the two rivers is blamed for the desiccation of the Aral Sea, now less than 10% of the size it was in 1960.

A similar shrinkage may have started with a larger body of water further west.

Researchers in Kazakhstan say the Caspian Sea is contracting. They are warning of an ecological disaster.

Kazakhstan’s northern Caspian port at Atyrau has often been left idle in the past three years due to decreasing water levels. Authorities there say that dredging cannot keep up with the receding water.

Besides the predicted commercial losses from the shrinking of the Caspian, local health officials are voicing concerns about the impacts on people in the region.

The Aral Sea disaster continues to cause a series of health problems, most of them respiratory and related to the alkaline soil of the dried-out seabed being scattered by winds.

Kazakh ecology activist Zhauken Kashenov said some residents of Kazakhstan’s northern Caspian coastal area are already complaining of respiratory problems from the dried silt of the expanding shoreline being blown inland.

The Kazakh Ministry of Water Resources is creating a scientific research institute to study such problems.

Adding to the strain on diminishing water resources in Central Asia are the growing populations of all five of the region’s states. Uzbekistan, the most populous Central Asian country, is home to some 36.5mn people. Uzbekistan’s State Statistics Agency says the population is now increasing, on average, by some 2,100 people daily.

President Mirziyoyev is also calling for greater efforts in water conservation and the prevention of evaporation from reservoirs and canals. He also wants a switch from traditional irrigation methods to drip-farming and other systems used in dry countries of the Middle East.

The clock is ticking.

Even without Afghanistan’s construction of the Qosh Tepa canal, Central Asia would still be facing huge challenges in trying to meet the needs of a growing population with decreasing amounts of water.

If the canal is built, it will necessitate the resettlement of tens of thousands of residents of downstream communities in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.