Interstate dependencies and tensions
An intricate web of resource interdependency exists between the five riparian states of the Aral Sea and its rivers. The two main rivers feeding the Aral Sea (Amu Darya and Syr Darya) flow through Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan downstream to Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan (Wolf & Newton, 2014). The latter three countries rely heavily on the Aral Sea and its tributaries for large-scale Soviet-era irrigation projects to grow cotton. Meanwhile, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan lack natural gas and oil deposits, making them reliant on hydropower for energy production (Dinar et al., 2007; Roll et al., 2005). The upstream countries thus have an incentive to release water during the cold winter months, when energy demand is greatest. The downstream countries, by contrast, mostly need water during the hot summer months for irrigation. A Soviet-era deal, however, ensured that upstream states released water in the summer in exchange for gas deliveries by downstream states.
This arrangement broke down following the collapse of the USSR, as states sought to secure resources unilaterally. Water releases from upstream dams shifted towards prioritising upstream energy needs rather than downstream summer irrigation needs, particularly as energy prices for upstream states rose (Pohl et al., 2017). Although there have been some transboundary agreements towards comprehensive Aral Sea resource management (see Conflict Resolution), these agreements have been successful to varying degrees, and tensions have erupted between the Central Asian states.
In 1998, a water-energy exchange was agreed upon between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan with the upper riparian state of Kyrgyzstan. However, conflict arose when these obligations were not met. For example, when Kazakhstan failed to meet the energy requirements of the agreement, Kyrgyzstan cut water flows from its reservoir as a result (Dinar et al., 2007). In 1999, Uzbekistan deployed 130,000 troops on the Kyrgyz border to guard the reservoirs which were threatened by Taliban and Islamist militants in the area (Dinar et al., 2007).
Water management and climate change impacts
Excessive water diversion from the rivers Amu Darya and Syr Darya has caused the Aral Sea to lose more than three quarters of its surface area between 1960 and 1990. At the same time, its surface area shrunk by more than half, while salinity tripled (Calder & Lee, 1995; GRID-Arendal, 2009; Wolf & Newton, 2014). These have had significant impacts on livelihoods and human security. With the collapse of the fishing industry during the 1980s, tens of thousands lost their jobs. Along with a historically heavy use of pesticides, many have also suffered from poor health as a result of poisonous dust storms and contaminated water (Roll et al., 2005; UNEP, 2014).
Furthermore, climate change has been flagged as a potential inflammatory contributor to water scarcity and tensions around the Aral Sea. Its impacts include glacial melting in the mountain ranges of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan which feed the Aral Sea, ultimately increasing the occurrence of flooding and contributing to overall soil degradation and long-term water scarcity (UNEP, 2014). Such events could increase in frequency and intensity as glacial retreat and precipitation extremes are projected to rise over many parts of Central Asia (IPCC, 2021).
To save the Aral Sea and prevent environmental degradation from further affecting livelihoods and human security, regional cooperation between all stakeholder countries is essential. Indeed, the region was regarded as an example for transboundary water cooperation during a UN Security Council open debate on water, peace and security in 2016 (Mirimanova et al., 2018).
Shortly after the collapse of the USSR, the five states around the Aral Sea and its rivers agreed to establish a regional committee to manage water allocation in the Amu Darya and Syr Darya river basins. This regional committee eventually became the Interstate Commission for Water Coordination (ICWC) in 1992, responsible for water allocation and dispute resolution mechanisms among the five countries (Barghouti, 2006).
In 1993, all five countries signed the “Agreement on Joint Actions for Addressing the Problems of the Aral Sea and its Coastal Area, Improving of the Environment and Ensuring the Social and Economic Development of the Aral Sea.” This agreement saw the establishment of the Interstate Council for the Aral Sea (ICAS) in the same year, whose primary responsibility was to formulate policies regarding resource management in the Aral Sea. To manage funds contributed by member states to manage the Aral Sea, the International Fund for the Aral Sea (IFAS) was created in 1994. Owing to inter-institutional competition for dominance and a lack of trust, the ICAS was merged into the IFAS in 1998 in an attempt to centralise governance. However, the IFAS suffered a three-year hiatus because of disagreements amongst members about its credibility and management of multi-sectoral interests (Wolf & Newton, 2014).
Bilateral and trilateral agreements were also reached. For example, the Syr Darya Framework Agreement was signed between Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan in 1998 (and later with Tajikistan in 1999). The treaty offers compensation to Kyrgyzstan through energy-water exchanges for the hydropower it forfeits to provide downstream riparians with water. Amu Darya River Basin Agreements were also signed with Tajikistan and Uzbekistan with similar energy-water exchanges (Dinar et al., 2007).
In addition to these regional agreements and their corresponding institutions, the riparian countries also sought international support to establish the Aral Sea Basin Program (ASBP) in 1994 (Barghouti, 2006). The ASBP is a consortium that includes the EU, UNDP, UNEP, World Bank and other international agencies, and was responsible for the management of long-term solutions to the environmental emergency in the Aral Sea (Dinar et al., 2007). Now in its fourth phase, the ASBP has made some success in mobilising support, defining actions to stabilise the environment around the Aral Sea, and restoring parts of the basin, although gaps have been identified in terms of addressing local interests as well as the root causes of poor water management (Barghouti, 2006; ECIFAS, n.d.).
While progress has been made in promoting regional cooperation, states still pursue bilateral and unilateral decisions outside of the regional framework, prioritising their individual economic security over regional development. For example, states continue to announce plans to build their own dams and reservoirs without considering regional development and states have a poor track record of keeping their obligations under various bilateral and multilateral agreements. In other words, resource competition is still evident and environmental degradation continues to destabilise livelihoods and resource access.
Nevertheless, common interest in the survival of the Aral Sea is evident in the varying multilateral agreements and treaties signed amongst the Central Asian states. Resource dependency amongst stakeholders has also helped prevent all-out resource wars (Dinar et al., 2007). Moreover, it should be noted that the costs of inaction in transboundary water management could go well beyond those directly linked to water management, affecting energy security, regional trade, and access to international finance (Pohl et al., 2017). Challenges remain, however, in adopting an integrated regional approach to Aral Sea protection which overcomes overlapping jurisdictions and institutional responsibilities (UNEP, 2014; Wolf & Newton, 2014).
Such challenges in developing a region-wide legal framework for the Aral Sea may thus call for alternative dispute resolution and prevention tools such as dialogue and mediation (Mirimanova et al., 2018). In this regard, the UN, specifically through the UN Regional Centre for Preventive Diplomacy for Central Asia (UNRCCA) could play an important role in promoting preventive diplomacy and cooperation in the Aral Sea (UNRCCA, 2019), through, for example, capacity building among stakeholders from the region’s water and energy sectors (UNRCCA, 2021).
Resilience and Peace Building
In 1993, following the creation of the Interstate Commission of Water Coordination, the “Agreement on Joint Actions for Addressing the Problems of the Aral Sea and its Coastal Area, Improving of the Environment and Ensuring the Social and Economic Development of the Aral Sea” was signed by all five states around the Aral Sea. Agreements have also been made at the bilateral and trilateral levels.
The UN Regional Centre for Preventive Diplomacy for Central Asia (UNRCCA) could play an important role in promoting preventive diplomacy and cooperation in the Aral Sea, for example, through capacity building among stakeholders from the region’s water and energy sectors.
Challenges in developing a region-wide legal framework for the Aral Sea may call for alternative dispute resolution and prevention tools such as dialogue.
Mediation & arbitration
Challenges in developing a region-wide legal framework for the Aral Sea may call for alternative dispute resolution and prevention tools such as mediation.
Resources and Materials
- Barghouti, S. (2006). Case Study of the Aral Sea Water and Environmental Management Project: An independent evaluation of the World Bank's support of regional programs. IEG Working Paper. Washington, DC: World Bank.
- Calder, J. & Lee, J. (1995). ARALSEA: Aral Sea and Defense Issues. ICE Case Studies. No. 69.
- Dinar, A. et al. (2007). Case Study 4. The Aral Sea Basin. In: Bridges Over Water. World Scientific Series on Environmental and Energy Economics and Policy: Volume 3, 285-305.
- ECIFAS (n.d.). Aral Sea Basin Program-4 (ASBP-4). Executive Committee of the International Fund for saving the Aral Sea.
- GRID-Arendal (2009). The disappearance of the Aral Sea. Vital Water Graphics 2.
- IPCC (2021). Regional fact sheet - Asia. IPCC Sixth Assessment Report.
- Mirimanova, N. et al. (2018). Central Asia. Climate-related security risk assessment. Expert Working Group on Climate-related Security Risks.
- Pohl, B. et al. (2017). Rethinking Water in Central Asia – The costs of inaction and benefits of water cooperation. Bern: Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation.
- Roll, G. et al. (2005). Aral Sea. Experiences and Lessons Learned Brief. Lake Basin Management Initiative.
- UNEP (2014). The future of the Aral Sea lies in transboundary co-operation. Weather and Climate: Engaging Youth, WMO Bulletin 63(1).
- UNRCCA (2019). SRSG Natalia Gherman participates in the International Conference on the Aral Sea in Nukus, Uzbekistan. UNRCCA Press Release.
- UNRCCA (2021). UNRCCA organizes an online capacity building seminar and meeting of national experts on water and energy cooperation. UNRCCA Press Release.
- Wolf, A.T. & Newton, J.T. (2014). Case Study of Transboundary Dispute Resolution: Aral Sea.