Since the collapse of the USSR in 1991, tensions over water have repeatedly sparked conflict in Central Asia. But experts have told The Third Pole they are hopeful that improved relations between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan in recent years mean increased cooperation on water is likely.
Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan share the waters of the Syr Darya River. The transboundary river rises in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan, and flows through Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan. As climate change alters water availability in the region, claims over the resource have become increasingly fraught, particularly in the fertile and economically important Ferghana Valley region, which spans the territories of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
Upstream Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan lack energy security but have plentiful water for hydropower in high-altitude reservoirs. Meanwhile Uzbekistan has gas and electricity but relies on a steady supply of water for food security. Over the past 30 years competing demands for water led to tensions, particularly under former Uzbek president Islam Karimov.
Throughout the 1990s, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan (along with other Central Asian countries) signed more than eight agreements pledging to work together and raise the level of water cooperation. In recent years, however, expert commentators say these efforts have intensified – particularly as water scarcity grows in the Ferghana Valley.
Improvement in Kyrgyz-Uzbek relations
In 2016, Shavkat Mirziyoyev was elected president of Uzbekistan. As a graduate of the Tashkent Institute of Irrigation and Agricultural Mechanization Engineers, Mirziyoyev is familiar with the problems of water management.
Since Mirziyoyev came to power, “constructive cooperation has developed between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan” said Igor Shestakov, director of the Oy Ordo Center for Expert Initiatives, a project of an NGO based in Kyrgyzstan. “The countries are making positive progress on the bilateral agenda, including the establishment of water relations, despite the fact that this is a difficult task.”
Abdulkhakim Salokhiddinov, professor at the Tashkent Institute of Irrigation and Agricultural Mechanization Engineers (TII&AME), pointed out that in early 2021 a 2017 agreement was amended between the two countries regarding a reservoir in Kyrgyzstan, known as Orto-Tokoy reservoir in Kyrgyzstan and Kasansay in Uzbekistan. Under this, the countries agreed on the supply of water in exchange for electricity.
Salokhiddinov said that this involves “the purchase of electricity by Kyrgyzstan from Uzbekistan in winter and vice versa, the purchase of electricity by Uzbekistan from Kyrgyzstan in summer, which creates an improved condition for the passage of water from the reservoir within the established limits at the right time”.
He added that this cooperation improves energy and water security for both countries.
A more recent example of increased cooperation came on 27 May 2022, when Shavkat Mirziyoyev spoke at an online meeting of the Supreme Eurasian Economic Council. He stated that construction of a railway between China, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan will begin soon.
The Supreme Eurasian Economic Council is composed of the heads of state of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) – an arrangement set up in 2015 between Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Russia.
The meeting was chaired by Kyrgyz president Sadyr Japarov. Uzbekistan is an observer of the EAEU, although has been contemplating joining the union in recent years. This year was the second instance Mirziyoyev has attended the summit, participating online for the first time in 2021.
Erbol Sultanbaev, spokesman for the Kyrgyz president, told The Third Pole that because the summit addressed future cooperation between EAEU countries “topics regarding two countries, including water issues, were not considered”. Nevertheless, Mirziyoyev’s participation in the meeting demonstrates a broader strengthening of cooperation in general.
Shortly after the summit, on 8 June, Kyrgyzstan announced the start of construction on a hydropower plant, describing the project as beneficial for managing irrigation downstream as well as energy security upstream. Uzbekistan, which in the past would have been opposed to such construction, is reportedly participating in the project, while Kazakhstan is yet to affirm its involvement.
“The implementation of this important project with the participation of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan will expand the energy sector of the Kyrgyz Republic and develop industry,” said Shestakov, of the Oy Ordo Center.
Do old agreements need updating?
With prospects looking positive for increased cooperation between the Central Asian countries, now may be the time to update some of the most important agreements on water sharing signed in the 1990s.
Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan are already parties to many agreements on water sharing, pointed out Dinara Ziganshina, director of the Scientific Information Center of the Interstate Coordination Water Commission (ICWC) of Central Asia.
The ICWC is a framework for collaborative regional water management created under the 1992 Almaty Agreement. It manages water allocations and dispute resolution mechanisms.
The Almaty Agreement, signed by Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, regulates water allocations between the countries. It largely upheld water quotas under the Soviet Union, despite changes to national boundaries.
“Parties can agree on new mechanisms and prescribe them in agreements, but it is important to remember that not everything old is bad,” said Ziganshina. “Changes should be thoughtful, taking into account the possibility of their implementation.”
Two of the most important agreements are the 1992 Almaty Agreement, which regulates water allocations and adhered to the previous Soviet-era principles of water allocation, and the 1998 Syr Darya Agreement. This regulates the use of water and energy resources, with downstream countries supplying coal, gas, electricity and other goods or services in exchange for water storage by countries upstream. While it could have promoted cooperation, academics say that in reality both upstream and downstream countries have violated its provisions.
“In 2017, everyone witnessed that the hand of friendship was extended,” said Ziganshina. “Agreements were reached on many problematic issues, including the signing agreements between governments on the interstate use of the Orto-Tokoy reservoir in Kyrgyzstan.”
Many experts say water quotas now need to be updated, given the ICWC has not adjusted the allocations in 30 years.
Ziganshina asserted that the ICWC adapted the system to changed conditions and that “therefore, it cannot be said that the water distribution system in Central Asia was frozen in the past…. Success depended on many factors outside the ICWC jurisdiction (political, geopolitical, commercial).”
She added: “In order to minimise the impact of these factors, it would be advisable to update the provisions of the agreement in those parts that do not work effectively enough.” Even then, she pointed out, water should be used sparingly so that there is enough for people and nature.
In contrast, Kyrgyz water management expert Matraim Zhusupov told The Third Pole that this problem cannot be solved using the same approaches that led to it.
“It is necessary to act globally, change thinking, otherwise it is difficult to break through the impasse, because each side is trying to protect its interests. And this is despite the fact that there are many agreements, most of which do not work. Negotiations are needed for addressing the issue, and, having united into a single organism, it is necessary to solve the problem by determining water quotas, bearing in mind the need for resources for the maintenance of hydroelectric facilities and technical structures,” Zhusupov said.
Abdulkhakim Salokhiddinov, the professor at TII&AME advised caution on updating existing agreements. “The introduction of any [amendments to the Syr Darya Agreement] can cause other changes in chain order, and lead to undesirable changes in this fragile issue… Its preservation without changes is in the interests of all countries of the region,” he concluded.
While there is a lack of consensus on the need to update existing agreements, there is consensus that water management will become increasingly challenging as Central Asia feels the effects of climatic changes. “Negotiations are needed,” said Zhusupov, calling for politicians to “listen to expert assessments, their forecasts and respond to them; adapt to the changing climate and take action on rising temperatures”.
Improving relations between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan give hope that governments can step up to this challenge.
This description was excerpted from thethirdpole.net.