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Central Asian Hydroelectric Water Wars Heat Up

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Kyrgyzstan's Toktogul hydroelectric power plant low water levels may cause water shortages this spring and summer for downstream Uzbek cotton farmers. Uzbekistan annually uses 53 billion cubic meters of water for irrigation and during the growing season the country needs an additional three billion cubic meters, which are provided by the Toktogul HPP. Kyrgyz authorities earlier said that this year the Toktogul reservoir had accumulated only eight billion cubic meters of water, instead of 11 billion required for normal operation. To provide downstream Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan with irrigation water, the Toktogul reservoir needs to accumulate 19 billion cubic meters each year.

The problem is not new -- in 2013, Kyrgyzstan halted water releases to Uzbekistan because of low water in several of its reservoirs, which resulted in water shortages in Uzbekistan's Namangan, Andizhan, Fergana, Syrdarya, Jizzakh, Tashkent, Samarkand, Bukhara, Kashkadaria, Khorezm and Surkhandaria regions.

Central Asian water disputes between the five "Stans" -- Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan -- have been slowly worsening since the implosion of the USSR in 1991.

Water inextricably links downstream Kazakh, Turkmen and Uzbek agrarian production with upstream Kyrgyzstan's and Tajikistan's hydroelectric power production. While during the last 23 years most foreign investors have focused on Central Asia's extractive industries (energy and minerals), water is an issue of rising concern throughout the "Stans," and concerns ranging from energy companies with expertise to renovate decrepit Soviet-era hydroelectric facilities to business concerns specializing in advanced water purification and conservation techniques or high-yield, drought and pest resistant crops have increasingly come to the forefront of Central Asian investment agendas.

Glacier melt is carried by Central Asia's 1,500-mile Amu Darya and 1,380-mile Syr Darya rivers, which originate in the Pamir and Tien Shan mountain ranges in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan before meandering westwards through Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan to empty into the Aral Sea. The Amu Darya's headwaters in the form of the Panj River arise in Tajikistan, while the Syr Darya originates in Kyrgyzstan. Besides river water, Tajikistan also contains many glaciers, of which the 270-square-mile Fedenko glacier is the largest in the world outside the Polar Regions.

The Amu Darya and Syr Darya water flows, whose combined flow before massive Soviet agricultural projects were implemented equalled the Nile, are unique in that, until 1991, they were part of a single country, the Soviet Union, with water management policy directed by Moscow. The amount of water taken from the Amu Darya and Syr Darya doubled between 1960 and 2000, allowing cotton production to nearly double in the same period. By the 1980s, nearly 90 percent of water use in Central Asia was directed toward agriculture, primarily cotton production, with the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya supplying nearly 75 percent of the water flow.

It is sustaining this Soviet cotton agricultural legacy that so concerns Uzbekistan with the water policies of its upstream neighbors Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

But hydrocarbon poor Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, facing rising natural gas prices from Uzbekistan, see increasing their hydroelectric potential as a growth sector in the form of electricity exports to South Asia, meaning that water discharges for power generation increasingly take precedence over the agricultural concerns of their downstream neighbors.

Tajikistan has few immediate options but to attempt to develop its hydropower assets. Only 7 percent of Tajikistan's land is arable, and the U.S. government estimated that the country's 2007 oil production was a paltry 280 barrels per day, and in 2006 Tajikistan produced only one billion cubic feet (bcf) of natural gas, forcing it to import 44 bcf to meet demand. The energy situation is equally dire in neighboring Kyrgyzstan, whose 15 hydroelectric stations generate 92.5 percent of domestically consumed electricity.

Uzbekistan overall consumes more than 50 percent of the two rivers' flow for its cotton production, which currently produces a significant percentage of the country's foreign currency earnings. In Turkmenistan, the Amu Darya's waters are used exclusively for agriculture as it flows onward through Uzbekistan to the Aral Sea. Kazakhstan's water relations with neighboring states are determined by its significant dependence on their river flows, which account for 44 percent of Kazakhstan's surface water resources.

According to Kyrgyz expert Valentina Kasymova, Tajikistan's hydropower potential is over 300 billion kilowatt-hours and Kyrgyzstan over 142 billion kWh.

Given the discrepancies between downstream Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan's agrarian needs and upstream Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan's dreams of hydroelectric prosperity and export sales, such tensions can only increase.

By John C.K. Daly of Oilprice.com

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John C.K Daly is the chief analyst at the energy news site Oilprice.com. Dr. Daly received his Ph.D. in 1986 from the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University of London.

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