Water resources management in the Central Asia region faces formidable challenges. The hydrological regimes of the two major rivers in the region, the Syr Darya and the Amu Darya, are complex and vulnerable to climate change. Water diversions to agricultural, industrial and domestic users have reduced flows in downstream regions, resulting in severe ecological damages. The administrative-institutional system is fragmented, with six independent countries sharing control, often with rival objectives.
What once was a basin-wide management approach during the Soviet times has become an uncoordinated competition between the upstream (Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Afghanistan) and the downstream (Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan). The hydraulic infrastructure is distributed over various independent countries. As a result, the water resources system is not managed collectively and cooperatively. A mixture of regional, national, and interstate institutions now handles allocation decisions, which used to be centrally administered during Soviet times. It should come as no surprise that water and energy allocation among the various sectors and users is not efficient. Future water resources development in northern Afghanistan will further add fuel to the water and energy conflict in the region.
In short, the upstream / downstream conflict consists of diametrically opposed demand patterns for energy and water resources, in space and in time. The Kyrgyz and Tajiks need to release water from a number of large reservoirs during the cold months so as to generate hydropower for heating. There, hydropower provides the cheapest source of energy with generating costs as low as 0.1 cent/kWh. Unfortunately, the winter releases frequently cause flooding in the downstream. At the same time and in order to have enough hydropower generating capacity during the cold months, these upstream states spend the warmer summer months husbanding water in those reservoirs.
That is precisely when the downstream riparian states have the most pressing need for irrigation water where the degradation of agricultural soils and insufficient flows for ecosystems are issues of growing concern. In the region, cotton is an important cash crop, and, at the same time, wheat is considered essential in order to meet national food security goals. Especially for Uzbekistan, considerations of self-sufficiency have become more important in recent times where food grain prices have increased considerably on the world market.
The original idea of the Soviets was to operate the hydro-infrastructure in irrigation mode. That is, the water resources of Central Asia were managed so as to maximize crop production. Part of the hydropower produced during irrigation water-releases in spring and summer was conveniently utilized in the downstream for driving lift irrigation and vertical drainage pumps along the 20,000 miles or so of irrigation channels. In return, the upstream got energy supplies in the form of gas and coal to cover winter energy demands.
Future climate change poses additional challenges. The discharge in both the Syr Darya and the Amu Darya rivers is driven mainly by snow and glacial melt. The impact of a warming climate on these key hydrological processes is not sufficiently understood and no mitigation and adaptation strategies are in place. Whereas changes in precipitation levels are hard to predict into the future, there is a solid consensus that average global temperatures are rising. As a result, more precipitation will fall as rain in the upstream and the ice volume in the Tien Shan and Pamir ranges will likely shrink. The former will impact the seasonality of the runoff whereas the latter will at least temporarily increase average annual flows. Furthermore, changes in sediment loads may pose additional problems. At this point in time, the impacts are not sufficiently quantified and adaptation and mitigation strategies not in place.
The ongoing construction of new dams in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan is adding tension to the existing upstream-downstream conflict. The soviet-era designed hydropower projects Kambarata I and II in Kyrgyzstan and the Rogun dam in Tajikistan are again on the table as a result of an increased access to international donor money with Russia and China investing in these projects. The downstream, especially Uzbekistan, is afraid of these developments because what this effectively means is that the upstream states can decouple themselves the necessity to receive energy deliveries in the winter from Khazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. With that, these republics fear, the upstream also loses its will to abide to summer operation rules with severe impacts to irrigated agriculture and the overall economy. From this perspective, it is not further astonishing that Uzbekistan tries to block these construction projects. Although the new infrastructure will be effective at damming river flow and in adding management options that are direly needed, measures need to be taken so that further flow impediment does not equal impediment to regional integration.
The unfavorable developments in this geopolitically important and fragile region call for urgent attention of the international community. Interdisciplinary research can critically inform decision making in the region for better risk management and the design of mitigation and adaptation strategies.