Security problems of the Central Asian region: water and energy aspect

UDC 32 (575.3)
Publication date: 30.09.2021
International Journal of Professional Science №8-2021

Security problems of the Central Asian region: water and energy aspect

Kurbonova Zulfiya Mahmanabievna
Saidov Saymahmood Saydahmadovich

1. Head of the Department of International Relations and Diplomacy
Russian-Tajik Slavic University,
Doctor of Political Science, Associate Professor
2. Vice-rector for educational work of the Tajik State University of Commerce
Candidate of Economic Sciences, Associate Professor
Abstract: The uneven distribution of water resources in Central Asia causes a conflict of interests between key water suppliers (Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan) and its main consumers (Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan). There is a vicious circle: the energy priorities of the upstream countries are contrary to the agricultural interests of the downstream countries, since one, first of all, needs electricity, and the second - water for the development of irrigated agriculture. But the ideal isolation of this circle suggests that this is a field for absolutely mutually beneficial cooperation.
Keywords: water resources, energy problems, conflict of interests, energy priorities, mutually beneficial cooperation.

In Central Asia, water and energy systems are inextricably intertwined. Nature determines the hydrologic interlinkages: multiple transboundary rivers, including the Amu Darya and Syr Darya of the Aral Sea basin, connect the territories of the Central Asian Republics and Afghanistan.

Energy interdependence is man-made: the newly independent states inherited the intricate energy-for-water trading scheme which supplied electricity generated from the downstream fossil energy riches to the upstream countries during the cold winter season, so that the latter would store water for summer-irrigation needs in their reservoirs.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union the unitary system became transboundary overnight. The re-established national borders continue to pose significant challenges to optimize asset operation and for national and regional water and energy resources management. Central Asia Water and Energy Program was established to help the countries with these nexus challenges.

Forming Partnerships

The Central Asia Water and Energy Program (CAWEP) is a partnership between the World Bank, the European Union, Switzerland (through SECO) and the United Kingdom (through DFID) to strengthen the enabling environment to promote energy and water security at regional level and in the beneficiary countries. Structured along three pillars: (1) energy security; (2) energy-water linkages; and (3) water security, the program pursues three components since its inception in 2009: (a) data and diagnostic analyses; (b) institutions, capacity and dialogue; and (c) supporting investments.

CAWEP promotes water and energy security working at the national scale to strengthen national institutional capacities and sector performance, while at the same time keeping regional cooperation on the dialogue agenda to create an enabling environment for achieving national and regional energy and water security.

CAWEP works with and supports governments, national and regional organizations, civil society organizations, and development partners, including other international financial institutions. The Program is anchored in partnerships with governments to ensure that program activities address national priorities. CAWEP cooperates with other development and financing partners to enhance the impact in meeting its objectives and to leverage investments by others.

Water-Security Based Challenges to Interstate Cooperation in Central Asia

The regional security in Central Asia is determined by various factors. One of them is the allocation of transboundary water resources with a growing potential for escalation, both at national and local levels – within riparian states – and at the regional level, including at river basin level. As summarized in the classical theory of political realism (Morgenthau, 1954; Aron, 1962), like any other conflict, water conflicts in Central Asia are caused by the discrepancy of interests of the involved parties. In Central Asia the problem of allocation of water is of a vital strategic importance for each riparian country and is often being used as leverage in their international relations (Khakimov, 2013). Unlike oil and gas, water continues to be perceived as «free of charge.» It is often used neither with consideration of vital interests of other riparian states, nor taking into account various water dependent sectors, nor the sectorial interdependence.

In order to ensure their own energy security, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan decided to exploit the existing hydropower plants (HPP) throughout the year and build new large hydropower facilities: Rogun HPP (on Vakhsh river) and Dashtidjumskaya HPP (on Panj river) in Tajikistan, as well as two Kambar Ata HPP (on Naryn river) in Kyrgyzstan. These plans sound alarming to the neighboring Uzbekistan. Uzbeks fear that additional regulation of these rivers will allows Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan to fully control the flow of water. Thus, the energy priorities of the upstream countries conflict with the agricultural interests of downstream countries. The first need electricity, the latter water for the irrigated agriculture. As a result, countries accuse each other creating disintegration instead of convergence.

Water became a source of conflict among Central Asia’s riparian states, turning into a factor of national and regional instability, impeding the process of regional unity (ICG, 2002). An example was the conflict situation in the Fergana Valley caused by unresolved issues of water distribution in 1998. The conflict led to a crisis between Central Asian countries (idem). Regional instability, potential for conflict, and growing security threats to the entire Central Asian region are acknowledged by the European Union as a consequence of continuing poor management of the water sector (Council of the European Union, 2010). There are similar political concerns from the UN General about water cooperation in Central Asia, which is perceived in its global dimension.

The possibility to resolve the existing conflict over water resources in the Aral Sea basin depends on the readiness for cooperation between Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. More than twenty years after independence, these countries remain insufficiently prepared for it. It also depends on the level of cooperation between the post-Soviet Central Asian countries with Afghanistan, an important upstream country in the Aral Sea basin. Its economic rehabilitation will necessarily impact the availability of water resources in Central Asia in total (UNECE, 2011; p. 15) but this aspect lies outside the focus of this paper.

One of the main bodies dealing with the management of transboundary rivers of the Aral Sea basin is the Interstate Coordination Water Commission (ICWC) and its executive bodies the Basin Water Organizations (BWO) ‘Amu Darya’ and ‘Syr Darya.’ They were created in the early nineties and incorporated into the International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea (IFAS). However, a paradox remains in that the operation mode of the basin of Aral Sea is developed without the involvement of power engineers. Moreover, the modes are implemented without representatives of the water industry. In Central Asia, cooperation in joint water use has de facto no legal regulation.

International Law Principles and Mechanisms of Transboundary Water Basins Management

Transboundary water management needs to be based on sound international legal framework. In the case of Central Asia, it requires the development of a sustainable interstate legal cooperation based on principles and instruments deriving from international water law. First of all, it shall be referred to principles of law governing the management of transboundary waters. Their proper implementation into interstate praxis is in turn based on certain legal mechanisms of cooperation. Better implementation of the international legal standards into the transboundary water management is the right way to secure regional stability, development and mutual cooperation.

According to international legal standards water management in Central Asia shall consider water’s development, use, protection, allocation, regulation, and control, in terms of the quality and the quantity of waters (ILA Berlin Rules, 2004, art. 1). Management of transboundary watercourses requires application of fundamental precepts reflected in a large number of international water law treaties and in customary water laws. The most important of them are: (i) principle of equitable and reasonable utilization of waters, (ii) principle of «no significant harm,» and (iii) principle of cooperation. These have been implemented into the currently binding legal framework of the transboundary interstate cooperation in a limited scope (Rahaman, 2012). All three principles reflect general rules of law to determinate the scope of states’ rights and obligations for purposes other than navigation in respect to international watercourses. Improvement of the application of these principles in legal practice of interstate relations of Central Asian is still on its way to come.

The legal meaning of these precepts might be summarized as follows. First, the equal right of states to utilize international watercourse does not necessarily mean that all riparian states enjoy an equal share in a particular watercourse. Second, reasonable use of waters does not equal most productive use or application of most efficient methods known, but is used to be defined in recognized international water policy instruments. Third, since countries shall take appropriate measures to minimize environmental harm within a state as well as across boundaries, there is no doubt that no state has the right to use or permit the use of its territory in such a manner that it causes damage in or to the territory or the properties (for instance to transboundary water resources) or persons therein, when the case is of serious consequence and the injury is established by clear and convincing evidence. A prerequisite of carrying into effect the equitable, reasonable and no harming transboundary water management is the states’ obligation to cooperate (UN Water Convention, art. 8).

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, independent national water systems were established in Central Asia. Interstate cooperation in the management of transboundary rivers still requires improvement. States may cooperate using various instruments, especially through information exchange and consultations. Prior notification of planned activities which could cause significant transboundary harm (this essential procedural mechanism is known as environmental impact assessment) presents to states an obligation of customary character regardless whether watercourse states concluded any respective agreement on this issue. In determining the manner of cooperation states «may consider the establishment of joint mechanisms or commissions to facilitate cooperation» (UN Water Convention, art. 8). These mechanisms of cooperation are not common in interstate treaty practice on transboundary water management in Central Asia. Despite the fact that more than twenty years have passed since independence of Central Asian states, neither the above-mentioned law precepts, nor the typical legal instruments of cooperation have been fully implemented into the legal framework on transboundary watercourses in the Aral Sea basin. They still remain a subject of interstate negotiations of multilateral and bilateral character (Janusz-Pawletta, 2015).


The current problem of water allocation and management is complex, and affects the interests of all Central Asian countries and their neighbors. Water in Central Asia is now seen as a factor that may be used to threaten the security of the region. The problem of water allocation is included in the overall perspective of political security; the threat of such a level is usually derived from the claims of hegemony and the propensity to use force to settle disputes between states and within them. These trends are compounded by the weakness of democratic institutions and the absence or insufficient development of pluralism and the rule of law. Delays in its solution may bring the region in critical conditions for interstate cooperation since the availability of water affects states’ economic and political development.

The «water vs. energy» nexus has become a major factor in domestic and cross-border security: downstream countries sell gas and electricity to their neighbors at market prices, and stop deliveries in case of a debt. This gives rise to conflicts at different levels. The mechanism of settlements and compensation for water, existing since Soviet times, is not working anymore. Therefore, a new mechanism is needed. According to the United Nations, Central Asia annually loses more than $ 1.75 billion, because of the inconsistency of decisions in the field of transboundary water coordination.

Currently each of the Central Asian countries seeks to solve its water problem unilaterally, without considering interest of riparian states. But water shall be a factor that unites the region. It would require more political will on the side of Central Asian leaders, as well as improvement of the existing legal framework based on international water law on transboundary watercourses. A fairly well-established legal regime for interstate cooperation in the governance of transboundary water resources shared by Aral Sea basin riparian states has been developing already for the last twenty-five years: the Almaty and Kyzylorda Agreements, the Nukus Declaration, as well as the Bishkek Agreement on Syr Darya, which is not active anymore. They have a political signification, but are only declarations and protocols of intentions, which make up the framework. A joint mechanism of water use has not been developed.

The existing regime of interstate cooperation in the Aral Sea Basin is nowadays subject to gradual and constant, but protracted development. A difficulty in proper implementation and enhancement of existing policy documents, legal regulations as well as effectiveness of the institutional mechanisms of transboundary water governance is an important indicator of current challenges to interstate cooperation on the scarce resources, such as water. The existing framework of cooperation needs strengthening and modernization to be able to properly implement existing and future challenges to interstate multilateral cooperation in the Aral Sea Basin. The states’ obligation to cooperate is a prerequisite of carrying into effect the equitable, reasonable and no harming transboundary water management. The fundamental importance of cooperation between riparian states is the inevitable result of the fact that an international watercourse is a shared natural resource.

Experts agree that the issues of water use in Central Asia cannot be resolved in a bilateral format. The region needs an independent supranational body that would deal with a complex solution of water, energy and agricultural issues and legal order. Water law facilitates creation of a proper water management strategy for every transboundary water basin. The level of today cooperation among Aral Sea Basin riparian states could still be improved for the sake of mutual benefits, especially in the view of magnitude and complexity of water usage problems between all mentioned countries. Its proper management is to be seen as one of the greatest challenges of the years to come in bilateral relations.


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