A Prelude to the War for Blue Gold

Frédérick Maranda-Bouchard Analysis, Asia, Economics, Environment, Global, Russia & FSU Leave a Comment

Access to water, a finite resource necessary to human life, will be one of the great environmental challenges of the next decades. In Canada, where water is abundant, this threat does not seem as looming as elsewhere, but that does not make Canada immune from the potential consequences of an international conflict resulting from water access. In Central Asia, the five states that share the region are clashing for access to this resource. The conflicts are being fought by economic leverage that certain countries have over others in the region, such as the mountainous Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan who own the sources of the rivers while lacking energetic resources of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.

While this region is facing concerns about access to water, it is not due to scarcity but to inefficiency in allocation and unsustainable agriculture practices. For example, large irrigation projects in cotton production significantly increase water usage in Uzbekistan. Since this crop demands plenty of water, production has been under threat since Uzbekistan gained independence in 1991. However, cotton irrigation still represents 90% of water usage in the region and the lack of another, more efficient crop in spite of cotton’s reduced profitability has led to the beginnings of conflict in the region. No effort to replace this harvest with another, more water efficient one, was taken even if its profitability fell down dramatically.

Before independence, the region was under policies where the two upstream countries gave enough water for the cotton fields down the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers in exchange for produces that will allow them to heat themselves in winter from the three downstream countries. After independence, the upstream countries proposed to keep the same elements, including quota allocation, only replacing goods by money as payments. More recently, the project to finalize hydropower plants in the upstream countries has been met with fear that it will lower the flow of the rivers. Downstream, over-production of cotton led to the recent shrinking of the Aral Sea which bankrupted several fishing villages and created the Aralkum desert.

Dependence on foreign actors for access to water can be disastrous for national security. This threat has been taken seriously by regimes of the region who have engaged in direct confrontation between each other, such as Uzbekistan’s military interventions in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. While the goal of the interventions was to pursue regime opponents, the fact that Tashkent did not hesitate to enter neighbouring territories in order to protect their interests must not have been lost on the region’s leaders. The need for large amounts of water from the downstream countries, and the desire for upstream countries to favour domestic water consumption instead of those of their neighbours led to conflict.

While most of the water is used to irrigate land, large numbers of people do not have water supplies and downstream states are dependent on agreements with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in order to either increase coverage or keep it at the current level. While being economically poorer, they can always threaten to reduce the amount of water they leave to the other countries of the region. However, by lacking other products such as coal, natural gas, and oil, the other countries have produced counter-leverage—every actor is trying to get the best deal they can.

In 1997, Kyrgyzstan voted to make their neighbours pay for the water coming out of the country, which enraged Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. It created a situation where the Syr Darya was not enough to let Uzbek farmers irrigate their fields. However, Southern Kazakhstan is also dependent on the Syr Darya once it has crossed Uzbekistan, which made the drought even worse. Uzbekistan retaliated by cutting natural gas exports to Kyrgyzstan, who retaliated by using more water in energy production to replace natural gas.

It is not the only time that conflict spilled onto third parties. A trade conflict between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan made the Tajik regime use their power plants on the Amu Darya at full capacity, which cut the flow in Turkmenistan, which in turn cut electricity exports to Tajikistan, resulting in a winter without electricity for many Tajikistanis. The upstream countries are trying to get more from the resources they have. In cases like Kyrgyzstan, which had better infrastructure to counter a blockade from their neighbours, they ended up in a better position than Tajikistan who saw its population freeze due to lack of electricity.

The main reason Tajikistan has been interfering in the water flow is because they intend to finish the Rogun Dam that would, by producing hydropower, break the Tajik dependence on Uzbek energy. This would be dramatic for Uzbekistan who needs this leverage on Tajikistan to sustain its hydroelectric infrastructure needs for irrigation. Uzbekistan claims then that construction would break the balance in the region on the question of water quotas. In order to prevent construction going forward, Uzbekistan blocked the only railway that could bring materials needed for the construction to Tajikistan. However, the official discourse changed recently. On the other side, Uzbekistan has been active in a project for the construction of a canal that would link the Siberian and Aral Basin, which could theoretically solve the resource problem. However, it makes numerous Central Asian countries dependent on Russian water. This goes against the Uzbek policy to break away from the Russian sphere of influence and Uzbeks are therefore reluctant to give them such leverage.

The region encapsulates on a low scale the future national security problem that is access to water. While Canada might feel that it is safe from being negatively affected by that conflict, or even that it could gain from it, it has shown to be quite disastrous for each party for now. Canada has large reserves of fresh water, but without establishing solid agreements before the crisis begins and investing in infrastructure that would allow us to be efficient in its exploitation, it could be in a position alike the upstream countries of Central Asia.