In a recent report, International Crisis Group urges Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan to focus on reaching modest, bilateral agreements on water sharing, rather than seeking an all-or-nothing regional accord. According to ICG, the water situation in these countries is too dire to wait for a comprehensive agreement that might ultimately prove impossible to reach.
The root of the problem is the disintegration of the resource-sharing system the Soviet Union imposed on the region until its collapse in 1991. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan provided water to Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan in summer and received Kazakh, Turkmen and Uzbek coal, gas and electricity in winter. The system had broken down by the late-1990s, and a plethora of bilateral and regional agreements and resolutions concluded in that decade failed to fix it. The concerns Crisis Group identified in 2002 – inadequate infrastructure, poor water management and outdated irrigation methods – remain unaddressed, while the security environment is bleaker. In Central Asia and in many other regions of the world, disputes over access to water exacerbate or drive conflicts between and within states. Resolution of water disputes can set the stage for broader cooperation in such situations.
ICG argues that the Central Asian states should work toward “modest bilateral agreements” on the sharing of water from the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers, while also working internally to improve water infrastructure and water-use practices, and to address corruption and waste. Water issues should be separated from other disputes between the states, like border demarcation and energy sharing.