Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Window on Eurasia: China Enters and Complicates Central Asia’s Water Wars



Paul Goble

.           Staunton, December 11 – Unlike the five countries of Central Asia proper, China as a major power “is able to ignore” the wishes of others regarding water, using far more of the flow of the Ili and Black Irtysh than Kazakhstan and consequently harming the economy of the latter, according to a new analysis of the struggle over water in the region.

            In an article posted on Geopolitika.lt, Igor Ivanov, a political scientist from Kazakhstan, says that Beijing’s approach reflects three facts: most of the flow of these two rivers is on its territory, Kazakhstan has been less than efficient in its use of water, and China feels it is forced to do so in order to compete with the United States (www.geopolitika.lt/?artc=5736).

                But however that may be, Ivanov continues, “it is perfectly clear that the water levels in the Ili and Black Irtysh will fall and that in turn will exert a negative influence on relations” between Astana and Beijing just as the struggle over water among the Central Asian countries has sparked political and even military conflicts among them.

            While China can “permit itself to ignore the interests of its neighbors,” the Kazakhstan scholar says, the water-short countries of the region itself, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and to a lesser extent Turkmenistan, are forced to contend with the consequences of the policies of the water-surplus ones, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.

            Along with the collapse of the Soviet Union came the collapse of the system of distributing water among the new countries of Central Asia. As a result, there have been many disputes among these states, disputes that have depended to a large degree on agricultural efficiency and regional stability, Ivanov says.

            “With the development of national economies,” he continues, “water use has only increased, and that cannot fail to be reflected in the context potential of the region, because water shortages to a great extent limit the possibilities for the economic development of the countries of Central Asia.”
            Besides the obvious geographic differences among these states – rivers rise in some places and flow to others – “the chief problem of the use of water resources” by Central Asian countries involves “domestic management, the effectiveness of which leaves much to be desired.”
            Moreover, “the inability of the countries of the region to develop an infrastructure for irrigation and provision of water to population centers contributes to the growth of inter-stte tensions because it is always simpler to blame one’s neighbor than to put things in one’s own house in order.”
            On the one hand, Ivanov argues, these countries have everything they need to address the problem: specialists, experience and “an understanding of the need to improve irrigation channels.” But on the other, cooperation among the countries has not happened because there is no consensus on how water, now very much viewed as a commodity or weapon, should be priced or shared.
            Agricultural outcomes in the region “to a large extent depend” on water levels and sharing. Unfortunately, Ivanov points out, the efforts of some of the states in the region to advance themselves at the expense of others has “interfered with constructive dialogue” and prevented all from reaching an agreement.
            “Because they control the sources of rivers that flow across borders, these countries try to use them to their maximum potential by promoting the development of hydro-electric power,” Ivanov says. That requires the construction of dams and reservoirs, but “water in reservoirs as a rule is built up in the summer and actively used in the cooler times of the year,” exactly the reverse of what is true in agriculture.
             And as a result of hydro projects like the planned Rogunsky hydro station in Tajikistan, downstream states like Uzbekistan may see agricultural yields fall and the needs of the population for fresh water unmet and sanitation suffer with the result that there is a chance for epidemics.

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