Central Asia needs water even more than it needs oil. Water, like oil, is an important source of competition and conflict.

Why is the Aral Sea drying up?
Aral Sea, 1989 (left) and 2003 (right) (NASA)

Aral Sea, 1989 (left) and 2003 (right) (NASA)

The largest body of water in Central Asia—the fourth largest inland body of water in the world—used to be the Aral Sea. But the Aral Sea has been drying up. 

The cotton monoculture used up so much water that the rivers almost dried up before reaching the Aral Sea. Since 1960, the Aral Sea has received so little water that it has lost 80% of its volume. All that remains of the original sea are a few shallow stretches, surrounded by the exposed seabed. The wind lifts the dry dust of the seabed— which contains poisonous fertilizer and pesticide residue—and carries it in immense quantities over long distances, ruining the health and livelihood of people living in its path.

An old fishing vessal in what used to be the Port at Moynak, Karakalpakistan, Uzbekistan (photo: Kimberley Bulkley)

An old fishing vessal in what used to be the Port at Moynak, Karakalpakistan, Uzbekistan (Kimberley Bulkley)

At various places on the exposed seabed one can see "ship graveyards" of what were once the fishing fleets of bustling ports.

Kazakhstan completed a 7-mile-long dam in 2007 to enclose a northern section of the sea, which it hopes will be preserved by inflow from the Syr Darya. A second dam is scheduled. The southern half of the sea controlled by Uzbekistan will then dry up completely unless it takes steps of its own.

The anthrax threat

The drying up of the Aral Sea posed a threat of the spread of spores from anthrax buried on Vozrozhdeniya island where the Soviet military tested biological weapons. In 2002, through a project organized by the United States in cooperation with Uzbekistan, 10 anthrax burial sites were decontaminated. According to the Kazakh Scientific Center for Quarantine and Zoonotic Infections , all burial sites of anthrax were decontaminated. Vozrozhdeniya (Rebirth) island, due to the receding sea waters, is today no longer an island.

Water sources

Central Asia gets almost all its water from the mountains on the region's eastern flank. In Kyrgyzstan, southeastern Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Afghanistan abundant rainfall, thawing snowfields and huge glaciers feed the streams that flow into the two great rivers, the Syr Darya and the Amu Darya. These rivers and their tributaries flow west across southern Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan, and previously emptied into the Aral Sea. Now the inflow from the Syr Darya is much reduced, while the Amu Darya no longer reaches the sea at all.

Network of irrigation canals support cotton monoculture

The Aral Sea receives only whatever water is left after evaporation, seepage, and human consumption. The biggest use of water continues to be irrigation for the cultivation of cotton. Soviet central planners had focused the region on producing cotton, neglecting other branches of agriculture.

Mountain glaciers melting as a result of global warming

In the years since the Central Asian states became independent, the river flow has increased a little. This is partly because the area under cotton has been somewhat reduced, but the main reason appears to be that the mountain glaciers have begun to melt as a result of global warming. That means that the relief is temporary. When the glaciers melt away, less water than ever will be flowing through the rivers of Central Asia.

Conflicts over water

Efforts have been made to improve the joint management of the region's water. In 1992 the five Central Asian countries set up the Interstate Coordinating Commission for Water Resources. The World Bank, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the European Union, and OSCE also provided assistance.

In 2006, the OSCE, in cooperation with the Geneva-based UN Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) and the Bangkok-based UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP) worked with Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan to establish the Chu-Talas River Commission. The joint project implements a bilateral agreement, where Kazakhstan has agreed to pay part of the operating and maintenance expenses for a number of Kyrgyz dams and reservoirs that supply water to both countries. It is hoped that Kazakh-Kyrgyz cooperation can be duplicated and applied to other trans-boundary river basins in Central Asia and thereby increase the all-around capacity of the region to meet its water needs.

Nevertheless, disputes over the use of water have caused tensions both between and within the various countries:

  • Kazakhstan complains that Uzbekistan is not leaving enough water in the Syr Darya River to meet the needs of southern Kazakhstan.
  • Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan disagree over when water should be released from Kyrgyzstan's Toktogul reservoir. Kyrgyzstan wants to release water in the winter to provide hydroelectric power for heating, while Uzbekistan wants water in the summer for irrigation.
  • Water-short Uzbekistan wants more water from water-surplus states Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.
  • Uzbekistan opposes Tajikistan's plans to resume work on the Rogun Dam project, first started during the Soviet period but suspended when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. The project would enable Tajikistan to control the flow of the Vakish River, a major tributary of the Amu Darya River, which feeds Uzbekistan's irrigation canals.
  • Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan disagree over Turkmenistan’s plan to divert Amu Darya waters to a large artificial lake outside Ashgabat.
  • The Karakalpaks of western Uzbekistan, who live closest to the Aral seabed and have been affected the worst by the drying up of the sea, resent the upstream users who deprive them of the water they need.
Plans for producing and exporting electricity

The CASA-1000 project plans to build hydroelectric-power producing dams and power generation sites in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, which will also include exporting available summer electricity surpluses to Pakistan and Afghanistan.  Tajikistan's Rogun Dam would be part of this project.  Russia is interested in using the planned power lines to export its own electricity to Pakistan.  Uzbekistan continues to oppose this project.