Perspectives | Clock is ticking as Central Asia confronts water calamity

Perspectives | Clock is ticking as Central Asia confronts water calamity
Map showing the watershed of the Amu Darya (orange). The dwindling health of the river is a stark illustration of the consequences of poor water resources management. / Shannon1, cc-by-sa 4.0
By Sanat Kushkumbayev for Eurasianet February 19, 2024

The future of water in Central Asia is about numbers.

And the numbers are troubling.

Consider this: the five countries in the region collectively consume approximately 127bn cubic metres (bcm) of water, with about 80%, or 100 bcm, used annually for agriculture. 

But only 50% of the water earmarked for agriculture is utilised effectively. This implies that half of the water does not reach the fields and is lost along the way due to the poor condition of irrigation facilities and wasteful agricultural practices. 

To put it succinctly, countries are flushing away vast quantities of water and getting little in return. That is why Central Asia’s water use efficiency indicator has been found to be eight times lower than the global average.

There are clear and present repercussions to this mismanagement.

Of the region’s 79mn people, fully 22mn lack access to safe water. So, for every 10 Central Asians, three live perennially without the certainty they can find a glass of clean water to drink. And that ratio may get much worse without remedial action.

The World Bank estimates that the population of the region is poised to grow to 90-110mn by 2050. Continued urbanisation, climate change, droughts and the demand for increased food production will only exacerbate the strain on scarce water resources.

An immediate turn to rational usage of shared water resources on a sustainable, equitable and cooperative basis is imperative.

This year, Kazakhstan has taken over as chair of the International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea, or IFAS. It will perform that role for three years.

IFAS needs a kickstart if it is to be of any use. As observers have fairly noted, the Aral Sea is scarcely a sea, and IFAS lacks funds. Kazakh officials have stated that they intend to give new vigour to this body.

This presents a valuable opportunity to take decisive steps. 

To begin with, we should establish a Central Asian Water and Energy Consortium, with equal participation of all regional states. This idea has been under discussion for a considerable time and has garnered support, particularly at the USAID. The consortium should be based on an international treaty and be open to extra-regional participants, international organisations and financial institutions.

The desired outcome is to strike a balance between the interests of so-called "upper" and "lower" states.

Upper states – which is to say Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, the heavily mountainous nations in which our region’s big rivers mostly rise – want to build large hydroelectric power plants. That will entail erecting tall dams and vast reservoirs.

What is more, politicians and experts in those countries call for water from transboundary rivers to be considered a commodity. This implies slapping a charge on water use by lower states – Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, which happen to be far better endowed with other natural resources, like oil, gas and even uranium.

This impasse has led to decades of often fruitless disputes. Less arguing, more negotiating is the order of the day.

Next, there is the elephant in the room: Afghanistan. There is no point in pretending this country does not have a colossal part to play. It taps into the same water resources that Central Asian nations rely upon, so it needs to be made a partner to the conversation.

Failure to do that bears deep risks.

In 2022, the Taliban-run government initiated construction of a significant irrigation project known as the Qosh-Tepa Canal. The canal spans 285 kilometres (177 miles) from Balkh to Faryab province. It is expected that work on it will be completed by 2028. 

Once finished, Qosh-Tepa will have the capacity to divert up to 20% of water from the Amu Darya. This development could raise tensions between Central Asian countries and Afghanistan.

There may be ideological and political differences between  Afghanistan and the five countries of Central Asia, but Kabul’s practical participation in water management processes is a sine qua non for sustainable management of the entire basin.

And third, it is high time to apply best practices in water usage.

This is costly, but doing this would be a win-win. Using water efficiently means more of it is available to go around, less pollution and higher productivity, which in turn means more money. All the region’s governments need to be encouraging the introduction of modern technologies, digitalisation and green investments in the water sector.

Again, we must turn to numbers to illustrate the stakes.

The Global Commission on Adaptation has identified a direct correlation between water policies and economic indicators. Their predictions suggest that if Central Asian countries fail to address the water issue by 2050, there could be a substantial decrease in gross domestic product, or GDP, in the range of 7-12%.

That would be calamitous.

Dr. Sanat Kushkumbayev is a visiting scholar at the Institute for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies, Elliott School of International Affairs at The George Washington University.

This article first appeared on Eurasianet here.