Are ‘Water Wars’ imminent in Central Asia?

Once a zone with perfect conditions for farming, Ferghana Valley is today under threat of desertification.

[Timur Karpov/Al Jazeera]
Disappearing glaciers threaten cultivation in Uzbekistan's orchards [Timur Karpov/Al Jazeera]

Kuva, Uzbekistan- This town sits in the corner of the most fertile piece of land between Iran and China.

The overpopulated, Israel-sized Ferghana Valley has attracted the armies of Alexander the Great, Arabs, Mongols and Russian tsars. It has also spawned some of the bloodiest conflicts in the former Soviet Union, including ethnic clashes, incursions of armed Islamists and the Uzbek government’s merciless crackdown on a 2005 popular revolt.  

The glaciers and snows of the Tian Shan mountains around the valley give birth to the Syr Darya, one of Central Asia’s two major rivers, and turn the valley into a giant hothouse with nearly perfect conditions for farming. Border areas in nearby Xinjiang, China’s troubled Muslim region, also depend on Tian Shan’s glaciers for water.

But between 1961 and 2012, the sky-scraping range whose name means “Heavenly Mountains” in Chinese, has lost 27 percent of its ice mass, the German Research Centre for Geosciences said last year. The annual loss amounts to up to 5.4 cubic kilometres of water a year, it said.

“This means that the glaciers in the Tien Shan lose each year as much water as all the people of Switzerland, including industry” consume in six years, Dr Daniel Farinotti of the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research who led the research, told Al Jazeera.

By the 2050s, the loss may amount to half of the glaciers’ ice mass, the research concludes pessimistically. 

“The situation is of particular concern in light of both the local population growth and the continued glacier shrinkage anticipated in response to climatic changes,” it said.

Uzbekistan woman in an orchard in the eastern town of Kuva   [Timur Karpov/Al Jazeera] 
Uzbekistan woman in an orchard in the eastern town of Kuva  [Timur Karpov/Al Jazeera] 

Killing for Water

The fields and orchards of Kuva, a millennia-old town known for Buddhist artefacts and irrigation systems that predate the Arab invasion of the 8th century, are a short drive away from the mountains.

But farmers here are “ready to kill each other for water,” a local mirob, or community official responsible for distribution of piped water from a communal canal, told Al Jazeera.

The official, who could not give his name because of his job’s sensitivity, described how over the past decade farmers have increasingly resorted to quarrels and fistfights and used their connections to officials to influence the timing and duration of water allocation to their land lots.

This year, there’s next to nothing to irrigate the fields with. “There’s been no winter this year, so we’re begging God for water,” farmer Rasul Azamatov told Al Jazeera.

He drove his rundown motorcycle along an old, dry trough, its concrete sections bent and cracked, the cracks stuffed with plastic or cotton. An apricot orchard around him was in full bloom, pink petals falling on the dry soil with sparse leaves of last year’s grass that survived the snowless winter, but is withering without rain.

The district’s irrigation hub is the Kerkidan reservoir built in Soviet times and once a magnet for picnickers and fishers. But what is left of the reservoir that is now shared by Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan is an expanse of drying, crackled dirt and a few muddy puddles.

The Ferghana valley is a bit bigger than Israel, but lacks its proficiency in water conservation – and does not have many alternatives to farming. Cheap Chinese exports have killed local plants and factories, and the valley has become a major source of labour migration – mostly to Russia.

Farmers in Kuva have been squabbling over water allocation [Timur Karpov/Al Jazeera]
Farmers in Kuva have been squabbling over water allocation [Timur Karpov/Al Jazeera]

Energy for water

Apart from global warming, experts blame the perennial drought on the Soviet system of swapping water for energy – for its collapse.

“The root of the problem is the disintegration of the resource-sharing system the Soviet Union imposed on the region until its collapse in 1991,” the International Crisis Group, a conflict studies think-tank, said in a 2014 report entitled Water Pressures in Central Asia.

Mountainous Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan had few natural resources, but boasted massive dams and hydropower plants. They used to receive coal and natural gas from downstream Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

The system was designed to turn Central Asia into a strategic source of cotton but fell apart by the late 1990s amid squabbles over energy pricing and unpaid debts, and “a plethora of bilateral and regional agreements and resolutions concluded in that decade failed to fix it,” the report said.

These days, Kyrgyzstan is withholding water in massive upstream reservoirs releasing it according to electricity generation needs –  that is in winter – and not the interests of now-foreign farmers next door.

The dust-ups over water are aggravated by bad blood.

Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan have been at odds for decades. Hundreds of people were killed in violent ethnic clashes in the Kyrgyz part of the Ferghana valley in 1990 and 2010, and the latter conflict prompted a brief exodus of hundreds of thousands of refugees.

Unsurprisingly, the word “war” resurfaced when Moscow threw its weight and money to revive Soviet-era designs to build five more dams and hydropower stations in Kyrgyzstan. The Kremlin pledged to finance the $3.2bn project on the Naryn River, Syr Darya’s tributary, as part of its political effort to restore its foothold in Central Asia.

Uzbek President Islam Karimov wasn’t very subtle with his warning. “Control over water resources in the republics of Central Asia may lead to a full-scale war,” he said in October.

But early this year, Russia and Kyrgyzstan scrapped the plans because of an economic meltdown caused by low oil prices and Western sanctions slapped on Moscow.

The exposed bottom of the Aral Sea covered with toxic salt-dust. Storms rage here for days, and the salt­dust is blown by the wind across Eurasia [Timur Karpov/Al Jazeera]
The exposed bottom of the Aral Sea covered with toxic salt-dust. Storms rage here for days, and the salt­dust is blown by the wind across Eurasia [Timur Karpov/Al Jazeera]

A Gordian knot

The Ferghana Valley’s problems are replicated throughout Central Asia, a landlocked region of more than 60 million people where conditions for farming are far less favourable, but tens of millions still live off land. Their problems are exacerbated by desertification, old and decrepit infrastructure and poor water management.

The cotton monoculture and Soviet-era reclamation of steppes and deserts have already killed the Aral Sea, once the world’s fourth-largest inland body of water that lies some 1,500km east of Kuva. Aral is now reduced to two smaller lakes, while most of its former seabed has turned into a desert that releases tens of thousands of tons of toxic salt-dust annually.  

Despite the immense environmental damage Aral’s desiccation has inflicted, the authoritarian governments of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, both listed among the world’s largest cotton producers, still force farmers to grow the water-thirsty fibre.

Authorities buy it at a fixed low price and rely on forced labour, mainly government employees and students who pick cotton for weeks or even months each autumn. 

Uzbekistan “controls one of the world’s largest systems of forced labour” that involves millions of people, rights activist and campaigner Umida Niyazova, who was forced to leave Uzbekistan for Germany, told Al Jazeera.

Uzbekistan: A dying sea, mafia rule, and toxic fish

In southeastern Kazakhstan, another major body of water faces Aral’s fate.

The shallow, boomerang-shaped Balkhash is the world’s 15th largest freshwater lake mostly fed by the Ili River that flows from China. The lake that supplies three Kazakh regions with is shrinking as China amasses Ili’s waters in a dozen reservoirs.  

Given the Gordian knot of regional problems, some experts think that in the coming decades, an armed conflict in the region over water seems inevitable. “The answer is clearly yes,” Dr Farinotti said.

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Source: Al Jazeera