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Water as a weapon

Fyodor Savintsev

Published on 12/08/14

© Fyodor Savintsev

Water scarcity is an omni­present plight in the devel­op­ing world. Today 780 mil­lion people lack access to drink­ing water. By 2030 nearly half the world’s pop­u­la­tion will inhabit areas of “high water stress,” accord­ing to the Organ­iz­a­tion for Eco­nomic Cooper­a­tion and Devel­op­ment. In Cent­ral Asia the lack of the pre­cious resource not only traps people in situ­ations of dire need and san­it­ary haz­ard; it also fore­shad­ows the rise of “water wars”—cross-border skir­mishes over access to water that aggrav­ate eco­lo­gical strife and give it sharp polit­ical over­tones.
Cent­ral Asia is divided into water-rich upstream and water-poor down­stream states. The fact that Tajikistan and Kyrgyz­stan, the upstream coun­tries, have the two weak­est eco­nom­ies in the region might be seen as nature’s way of off­set­ting mater­ial poverty with eco­lo­gical abund­ance. Still, the bal­ance of resources in Cent­ral Asia is far from a happy one. Cur­rently some Kyrgyz law­makers are toy­ing with the idea of cut­ting the flow of water to semi-arid Uzbek­istan, the nation with the region’s largest pop­u­la­tion and stand­ing army, after Uzbek­istan cut gas sup­plies to Kyrgyzstan’s south­ern city of Osh in April.
Uzbekistan’s decision to cut Osh’s gas may well have its ori­gins in a long-running water dis­pute. Offi­cials in Tashkent, the cap­ital of Uzbek­istan, are aghast at Kyrgyz and Tajik plans to build giant hydro­elec­tric dams upstream of the Syr Darya and Amu Darya rivers. Uzbek­istan relies on these water sources for its stra­tegic­ally vital agri­cul­tural sec­tor, and fears the dams will provide dif­fi­cult neigh­bors with the lever­age to delay the release of water. In 2012 Uzbekistan’s pres­id­ent, Islam Karimov, warned that mov­ing for­ward with these plans without regard for down­stream states like Uzbek­istan and Kaza­kh­stan could lead to a full-blown war.
Water prob­lems are not lim­ited to con­flicts between the region’s states, but extend to clashes within states and between com­munit­ies liv­ing in them. They also arise from crum­bling Soviet-era infra­struc­ture. Upstream Kyrgyz­stan, for instance, loses a third of its water wealth through holes in decay­ing irrig­a­tion net­works. This prob­lem is crit­ical in rural areas, where large amounts of water are cru­cial for the growth of crops. To keep pro­duce from dry­ing out, des­per­ate Kyrgyz vil­la­gers have set up hand­made dams that divert the local rivers and make irrig­a­tion access­ible. Their actions have led to drought in down­stream com­munit­ies. In areas like the Kyrgyz region of Batken, where few can object­ively verify where Kyrgyz­stan ends and Tajikistan starts, viol­ent clashes between Kyrgyz and Tajik vil­la­gers over irrig­a­tion water have become com­mon­place. Both sides accuse the other of steal­ing.
But Cent­ral Asia’s water scarcity is just a snap­shot of a broader crisis with grave con­sequences for the whole Asian con­tin­ent, accord­ing to sev­eral Rus­sian sci­ent­ists study­ing the rami­fic­a­tions of the water short­age. In China, a giant pop­u­la­tion and large-scale com­mer­cial activ­it­ies are pla­cing huge pres­sure on the Illi and Irtysh rivers, both of which flow into Kaza­kh­stan, the lat­ter con­nect­ing with the Ob in Rus­sia. Fur­ther drain­ing of the Ob-Irtysh basin will cause irre­par­able dam­age to all of Asia, threat­en­ing vast expanses of fer­tile lands, jeop­ard­iz­ing the fish­ing industry and severely harm­ing the Rus­sian part of the Arc­tic Ocean.
Cent­ral Asia’s water con­flicts are often per­ceived as local skir­mishes of little sig­ni­fic­ance to the rest of the world. But as the water levels in the region dimin­ish with every passing year, the anguish of dry spells will drive more and more people to enter into con­flict. A point of no return for this socio-ecological dis­aster is draw­ing nearer. Shed­ding light on the situ­ation is of pivotal import­ance today, while there is still time to pre­vent the water shortages—and the wars that will come with them—from spread­ing. Text by Katya Kazbek and Chris Rickleton

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