Liquid Challenges: Contested Water in Central Asia

Author:Christine Bichsel
Position:Senior researcher of the Department of Geosciences at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland
by Christine Bichsel*
With the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991,
the two large river systems of the Syr Darya and the
Amu Darya were no longer situated within one state,
but instead transected the borders of five newly independent
states: Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan,
and Turkmenistan.1 In the discourse of hydro politics, this was
perceived as a geographical misfit between water and state
boundaries, raising the potential for “water
wars.”2 Water is a scarce resource that may be
contended for by states and identity groups
because it is essential for physical survival
and basic for most human activities.3 Indeed,
water plays a crucial role in all five states of
post-Soviet Central Asia.4 The existing arid
climate in the region limits the possibility
for rain-fed agriculture and necessitates the
supply of additional water.5
Irrigation zones have been mainly
developed along the two major rivers, the
Syr Darya and the Amu Darya, which drain
into the Aral Sea.6 One of the most hospi-
table areas to irrigated agriculture in Central
Asia is the Ferghana Valley, an almond-
shaped intramontane basin surrounded by
extensive mountain ranges.7 United as part
of the Soviet Union until 1991, the Ferghana
Valley is presently divided among the three
successor states Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and
Tajikistan.8 It accounts for forty-five percent
of the total irrigated area within the Syr
Darya basin.9 However, water in Central Asia is not only used
for irrigated agriculture, but also for energy production.10
This article discusses conflicting claims to water in the Syr
Darya basin with a specific focus on the Ferghana Valley. It traces
the emergence of these claims back to Soviet water management
and irrigation and explores the contentious nature of water both
at the regional as well as sub-state level. It equally assesses
international efforts to mitigate the potential for violence and
degradation of the environment. This article also makes recom-
mendations in three fields. First, it stresses the continued need
to address water conflicts and related issues in Central Asia
not solely in the technical, but also the social, economic, and
political contexts. Secondly, it emphasizes the links between the
work of border commissions and water conflicts, particularly
those in the Ferghana Valley. Thirdly, it proposes a rethinking
of blueprint approaches to water management in Central Asia,
and to allow for more space for alternative conceptualizations.
The article concludes with the opinion that conflicts over water
in Central Asia may be driven more by particular interests of
specific domestic actors in each country than by non-cooperative
inter-state relations.
Map 1: The Aral Sea Basin, courtesy of International Water
Management Institute
The irrigation network in Soviet Central Asia received
particularly large financial and technological investments after
World War II.11 This entailed not only extending and widening
the major canals, but also expanding the irrigated area upwards
and outwards from the plains to the foothills.12 Built in the
1970s on the territory of Kyrgyzstan, the Toktogul reservoir
was designed to support this expansion and provide seasonal
and multi-year water storage in order to increase the availability
*Christine Bichsel is a senior researcher of the Department of Geosciences
at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland. This article has been adapted from
Christine Bichsel (Switzerland), with Kholnazar Mukhabbatov (Tajikistan) and
Lenzi Sherfedinov (Uzbekistan), “Land, Water, and Ecology,” in Ferghana Valley:
The Heart of Central Asia, ed. S. Frederick Starr (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe,
2011): 253-277. Used by permission of M.E. Sharpe, Inc.
25FALL 2011
of water for irrigation in the Uzbek and Kazakh republics, as
well as to regulate the distribution of water downstream in the
Syr Darya River basin.13 As was common with reservoirs in the
USSR, a hydroelectric plant was constructed at the same time,
enabling the Toktogul reservoir to generate hydropower in con-
junction with its water management function.14
The Soviet Union, like the Russian Empire before it, encour-
aged cotton production in Central Asia to satisfy the demand
of the domestic textile industry.15 The Soviet Union therefore
fervently pressed this water-intensive crop on the agriculturally
and ecologically suitable lowlands of the Uzbek and Tajik repub-
lics, as well as further downstream in the Kazakh republic.16
There, the Soviet Union developed irrigation and drainage proj-
ects primarily to increase cotton production in these lowland
republics, which facilitated the rise in cotton production from 4.3
million tons in 1960 to approximately 10 to 11 tons in 1990.17
With cotton being a strategic priority, Soviet leaders designated
the lion’s share of the Syr Darya river’s flow to cotton production
in the lowlands.18 Conversely, Soviet planners resolved that the
strategic priority in the Kyrgyz republic was animal husbandry
with a focus on meat and milk products, as well as growing rain-
fed fodder.19 The energy needs of the Kyrgyz Republic were met
by importing electricity and/or natural gas, coal, and oil for its
thermal power plants from the downstream Central Asian and other
Soviet republics.20 Thanks to these arrangements, the Toktogul
reservoir, as part of a highly integrated network, became the key ele-
ment in large scale cotton growing in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. 21
With the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, the for-
merly integrated scheme of economic management collapsed.22
Each of the five newly-independent Central Asian states was left
to restructure the previously centralized water management sys-
tem.23 The Soviet Union left behind a highly integrated network
of large irrigation canals and reservoirs, which was parceled out
among its successor states.24 This sudden transition meant that
Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan were now
individually responsible for managing the Syr Darya’s water.25
Moreover, these countries had to face the environmental con-
sequences of Soviet irrigation practices.26 During the 1970s it
became apparent that the massive Soviet investments had not
increased the efficiency of water use in Central Asia.27 Rather,
infrastructure problems actually led to huge water losses and
inappropriate irrigation practices caused excessive application
of water to the fields.28 These problems culminated in the well-
publicized disaster of the Aral Sea, which suffered decrease
in water levels, substantial pollution, and increased salinity as
a result of heavy water diversion for irrigation and poor water
management policies.29 Finally, although ample funds had been
devoted to the construction of an irrigation infrastructure, little
was spent on maintaining it.30 Thus, by the early 1990s when
these countries became independent large parts of the irrigation
networks in Central Asia were already in need of repair.31
Accordingly, independence necessitated the subsequent
establishment of new water management organizations, at both
a domestic and inter-state level.32 Each country established its
own ministries and departments to supervise water resources.33
These new, individualized ministries retained many of the Soviet
organizational structures, yet faced drastically reduced fund-
ing.34 The resulting water management organizations suffered
from declining salary pools, shrunken operating budgets, and
little money for equipment.35 These difficulties, along with con-
cerns over the efficiency of water usage, prompted the new states
to introduce cost recovery measures, and shift the ownership of
tertiary irrigation infrastructures to local water users as a way to
increase their rights and responsibilities.36
The end of the centralized Soviet system of water manage-
ment also necessitated new agreements among the new Central
Asian states to regulate the Syr Darya and Amu Darya Riv-
ers.37 The Almaty Agreement of 1992 established the Interstate
Commission for Water Coordination (“ICWC”) as the highest
decision-making body for all matters pertaining to the regula-
tion, efficient use, and protection of interstate watercourses
and bodies of water in Central Asia.38 The ICWC consists of
leading water officials from each of the five countries, who
met several times annually to set allocations and quotas as
well as resolve disputes.39 From this commission a number of
additional agreements emerged, some of them pertaining to all
Central Asia and others to specific rivers.40 On the Syr Darya
River, annual agreements were reached in 1995 and subsequent
years among riparian states concerning the allocation of water
and energy.41 In 1998, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan
concluded a watercourse-specific agreement on the use of the
water and energy resources of the Syr Darya River, thus folding
earlier annual agreements into the new Syr Darya Framework
Agreement.42 Tajikistan joined this agreement in 1999.43 Thus,
while the countries retained national control over crops, indus-
trial goods, and electric power generated by their use, they also
worked with one another to manage available water resources. 44
Neither the processes of domestic reform nor inter-state
negotiations have been smooth or predictable as disputes over
how to distribute shared water resources have arisen. The first
major conflict regarding the seasonal distribution of water across
the Ferghana Valley involves the operation of the Toktogul res-
ervoir and hydroelectric plant.45 The disintegration of the Soviet
Union placed great stress on the existing system of inter-repub-
lican compensation for water and energy.46 The newly indepen-
dent downstream countries experienced difficulties consistently
providing cheap gas for Kyrganstan, and ultimately raised
prices.47 Unable to purchase enough gas to generate its thermal
power plants, Kyrgyzstan experienced chronic electrical outages
during the winter, and in the early 1990s began to release more
water from the Toktogul reservoir during that season to drive its
hydroelectric generators.48 But by providing for its own heating
and lighting needs in winter, Kyrgyzstan reduces the quantity
of water available to downstream Uzbekistan for irrigating its
sector of the Ferghana Valley in the spring and summer.49 And
since a limited quantity of water can be retained in facilities such
as the Kairakkum reservoir, Kyrgyzstan’s release of water in the
wintertime have repeatedly flooded these downstream areas.50
Uzbekistan often complains about the damage caused by winter
flooding, demanding that water should be released mainly in
summer so as to prevent flooding and sustain irrigated crops.51
A second dispute concerns the economic value of water
provided across national borders. Since its independence, Kyr-
gyzstan has been neither willing nor able to assume the total
financial burden of operating and maintaining the Toktogul dam
and hydroelectric station nor willing to take actions to regulate
the flow of water into the Naryn River and, accordingly, the flow
into the Syr Darya.52 Kyrgyzstan therefore seeks compensation
from the downstream countries.53 The annual cost to Kyrgyzstan
of maintaining the Toktogul reservoir and its related infrastruc-
ture amounts to an estimated $15 to $27 million.54 Until 2002,
however, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan did not contribute to the
cost of maintaining and operating this facility.55 Rising gas
prices and the shift to a more market-oriented economy have
prompted Kyrgyzstan’s lawmakers to re-evaluate the value of
water as a resource.56 They argue that the Syr Darya waters flow-
ing from Kyrgyzstan bring considerable economic benefit to the
downstream countries via irrigated agriculture.57 Therefore, they
seek to place a specific value or price on water and to charge
its users for what they receive from Kyrgyzstan.58 Uzbekistan
has, to date, been critical of this idea, questioning whether any
country can actually own water and whether the water supply
should be treated as an economic commodity.59 Moreover, it
asserts that because Kyrgyzstan provides no “value added” to the
water flowing from its territory, it is hardly justified in asking for
financial compensation.60
A third point of contention concerns the apportionment of
water from the Syr Darya River and the quantity to which the
respective riparian countries are entitled. Kyrgyzstan contests
the old Soviet inter-republican quotas, which designated the
lion’s share of the Syr Darya’s water to Uzbekistan and Kazakh-
stan.61 With the 1992 Almaty Agreement on Water Resources,
the new states confirmed that they would continue to observe
the existing quotas for the time being, but did not detail the pos-
sibility of later changes.62 The Agreement assigned 51.7 percent
of the river flow to Uzbekistan, 38.1 percent to Kazakhstan, 9.2
percent to Tajikistan and only 1 percent to Kyrgyzstan.63 The
Kyrgyz claim is that this arrangement effectively barred them
from developing irrigated agriculture during the Soviet period
and denied them the economic benefit that would have come
from development.64 Kyrgyzstan, therefore, now seeks to correct
what it sees as a historical injustice by claiming enough water to
develop self-sustaining and market-based irrigated agriculture.65
However, this runs in direct conflict with plans by Uzbekistan,
Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, all of which seek to expand and mod-
ernize their own irrigated agriculture.66
At present, the outlined disagreements have resulted in
plans to build new dams and to deal with the accompanying or
resulting controversies. Among many smaller dam building proj-
ects in Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are each attempt-
ing to resume the construction of large reservoirs designed in
the 1960s and 1970s and partly constructed in the 1980s.67 In
Kyrgyzstan, the two Kambar-Ata dam structures are planned
upstream of the Toktogul reservoir on the Naryn River.68 These
dams would allow electricity production during winter, while
saving water in the Toktogul reservoir for downstream irriga-
tion purposes in the summer.69 Moreover, since the necessary
grid is already in place, the hydropower complex could generate
surplus electricity for exportation.70 However, there are doubts
about the financial viability and environmental impacts of the
project, one being that climate change-induced glacial melt and
projected reduced water flow could render the structure obsolete
within a generation.71 Kambar-Ata I and II are estimated to cost
around $3 billion, a significant investment which Kyrgyzstan is
unlikely to assume.72 So far, possible investors, including Rus-
sia, have been hesitant to invest.73 Questions of political stability
aside, this may also be due to Uzbekistan’s firm opposition to the
project, objecting, among other issues, to the increased control
Kyrgyzstan would acquire over the Syr Darya River flow.74
The Rogun dam in Tajikistan is a similar project with com-
parable goals to regulate water usage and release of the Amu
Darya River.75 Its original purpose was to guarantee sufficient
water supply during water-scarce years for users in the Amu
Darya basin, an area that suffers from a greater lack of regula-
tion than the Syr Darya River.76 The Soviets never completed
the project due to the USSR’s collapse that delayed construc-
tion in 1992 but if completed, the large hydropower plant and
enormous water reservoir to be situated on the Vaksh River, a
tributary of the Amu Darya River, will provide yearly water run-
off regulation of the Amu Darya.77 This goal is aided by the fact
that the Rogun River is not followed by a downstream reservoir,
which would likely affect the flow of the Amu Darya directly.78
However, the Rogun Dam has significant hurdles to overcome
before it can become a reality as the huge financial investment
needed to resume and complete the construction has not yet been
secured.79 Once operational, Rogun is expected to cover as much
as eighty percent of Tajikistan’s average energy consumption
and even offers opportunities for exporting electricity.80 How-
ever, Uzbekistan has raised opposition toward the dam, listing
concerns about reduced downstream water availability and dam
safety.81 Downstream countries are particularly worried about
water availability during the one to two decades in which the res-
ervoir would need to be filled.82 Moreover, downstream nations
and communities stress the future risks of the dam, as Rogun is
situated in a seismically active area near a geological fault line.83
A potentially sudden outflow of such a large scale could have
disastrous consequences for downstream riparian zones.84
Thus far, the focus of disputes over water and energy has
been among the successor states following the disintegration of
the Soviet Union. However, no less serious tensions over water
can arise within states.85 With regard to conflicts over water, Eric
Sievers, a Harvard University Russian and Eurasian scholar,
writes that, “As the Syr Darya basin contains the Ferghana Valley,
which is the most sensitive part of modern Central Asia in terms
of ethnic violence, it presents a special case of conflict.”86 He
27FALL 2011
suggests that water scarcity and strained inter-ethnic relations
could lead to violent conflict.87 Indeed, many water users have
faced declining access to water and greater uncertainties over its
delivery after independence.88 The changing seasonal patterns
of water distribution and the effects of the inefficient and dilapi-
dated infrastructure have negatively affected the situation.89
Moreover, as the population continues to grow, there will be a
further increase of pressure on water, land, and other natural
resources.90 Finally, as Sievers suggests, parts of the Ferghana
Valley experienced a rapid social and economic decline follow-
ing independence, which, if accelerated, could spur violence
among a population overwhelmingly dependent on irrigated
Conflicts over water distribution are a frequent occurrence
in the irrigated sections of the Ferghana Valley.92 On the southern
side of the valley, tensions tend to emerge in springtime when the
beginning of the agricultural season brings a high water demand
but the flow of the glacier-fed rivers has not yet filled irrigation
canals to meet that demand.93 Since most of the Ferghana Val-
ley irrigation systems are gravity-operated, nearly all conflicts
occur between upstream and downstream users.94 A more erratic
post-independence water supply has accentuated differences in
access to water between upstream and downstream users and has
increased competition for water during the springtime.95 As a
result, conflict parties form along territorial or residential affilia-
tion rather than ethnic or kinship lines, although these categories
frequently overlap.96
Water sources are contested particularly when rivers or
canals transect the new international borders and are thus subject
to inter-state agreements.97 In the southern part of the Ferghana
Valley this has entailed revising the allocation of water from
several rivers and springs.98 For example, during the Soviet
period sixty-nine percent of the Shakhimardan Sai River’s flow
was allocated to the Uzbek Socialist Soviet Republic SSR, as
compared with twenty-one percent for the Kyrgyz SSR (plus ten
percent “water losses”).99 After the disintegration of the Soviet
Union, Kyrgyzstan claimed, and sometimes simply appropriated,
more water for itself.100 Finally, in 2001 the Departments of
Water Resources in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan agreed that the
water of the river should be divided equally between them.101
Similar claims have been made on other rivers and sources,
with several of them ending in allocation agreements.102 These
changed allocations that benefit upstream users have left down-
stream users discontent over their reduced water supply.103 It is
tempting to attribute these conflicts to the inevitable disputes
arising out of new inter-state borders, however, it is at least as
valid to suggest that they should be understood as the fallout from
long-term economic shifts that are occurring in the region, the
character and final dimensions of which are not yet fully evident.
As a general rule, Uzbek and Tajik groups in the Ferghana
plains have a much longer history of agricultural production
and sedentary lifestyles than the Kyrgyz, most of whom prac-
ticed animal husbandry and pursued a nomadic or transhumant
existence in the foothills and premontane zones.104 However,
without clear-cut boundaries between them, there were constant
interactions between these modes of production and lifestyle. 105
But with the 1924 Soviet national-territorial delimitation, these
socio-economic distinctions became territorialized.106 They
served as a basis for establishing the political-administrative
divisions of the Ferghana Valley in the Uzbek, Tajik, and Kyrgyz
SSRs.107 The borderlines of the Ferghana Valley represented
not only the territory of newly established Soviet nationalities,
but to some extent follow the territorial distinction between
different socio-economic practices such as irrigated agriculture
and animal husbandry.108
Initially, Soviet regional economic specialization enhanced
these territorialized socio-economic distinctions. For example,
specialization fostered irrigated agriculture in the form of cotton
production in the Uzbek SSR and animal husbandry in the
form of meat and milk production in the Kyrgyz SSR.109 Later,
however, Soviet actions undermined specialization. The effort to
relocate and permanently resettle nomadic populations as well as
the expansion of irrigated agriculture zones into the foothills had
precisely this effect.110 With independence, the disintegration of
the big state farms that produced meat and milk in the Kyrgyz
sector, and the subsequent privatization of land, led many Kyrgyz
to turn to private agriculture for their livelihood.111 Today,
Kyrgyz, Uzbeks, and Tajiks in the foothills practice both animal
husbandry and agriculture.112 This has had the effect of further
increasing the demand for both land and water in the foothills of
the Ferghana Valley.113
This shift in resettlement created new claims for water and
land in the foothills of the Ferghana Valley, with the competing
interests drawn along geographic zones, economic classes,
and ethnic distinctions.114 Thus, conflicts over water and land
are also driven by territorial claims to the Ferghana Valley.115
Although the current de facto borderline is unlikely to undergo
major changes resulting from delimitation, many areas on the
border are still contested among the three countries.116 Ulti-
mately, the form of land use and the identities of the people using
a specific section may influence decisions on the borderline.117
A consequence of national-territorial delimitation is conflicting
territorial claims among the new countries.118 These tensions
tend to be especially concentrated in the irrigation systems
in the foothills.119 While such claims have existed throughout
the Soviet period, they acquired a new dimension with the
post-independence nation-building processes. 120
Immediately after the Central Asian countries gained their
independence in 1991, a large number of international aid agen-
cies rushed into the region with projects and funding.121 A prime
concern of early international engagement was to avoid violent
conflict among new states over water and to instead seek more
cooperative modes of engagement.122 A further concern was the
shrinking of the Aral Sea and its adverse impact on the people
and the environment.123 With a growing emphasis on agriculture,
an increased need for irrigation and a wasteful water distribution
infrastructure caused124 the water levels in the Aral Sea to drop
between thirteen and eighteen meters since 1960.125 Combined
with salinity levels eight times higher than they were in 1960
and over 400,000 kilometers of land lost to heavy pollution, the
Aral Sea garnered much attention.126 Efforts were geared toward
mitigating the disaster as well as protecting the environment for
the future.127 This meant reducing the draw of water for agriculture
from the Amu Darya and Syr Darya Rivers by rehabilitating
infrastructure and instituting water-saving irrigation practices.128
It also meant finding more efficient means of using water,
including the institution of some sort of pricing mechanism.129
Finally, international institutions criticized Soviet top-down
approaches that had reduced farmers—or farm workers, as it
were—to the status of passive implementers of decisions rather
than entrusting them with responsibility for their own water
use.130 Instead, international groups opted for decentralization in
water management and supported the granting of a high degree
of self-governance to water users.131
Efforts to rectify the Aral Sea environmental disaster
led directly to the formulation of inter-state initiatives for
the improvement of water management in Central Asia as a
whole.132 The well-publicized disaster generated large funds
and a multitude of projects from multilateral agencies, bilateral
donors, and private foundations.133 Spearheading these projects
from the outset were the World Bank, the United Nations Devel-
opment Programme (“UNDP”), the European Union (“EU”),
and the United States Agency for International Development
(“USAID”).134 To different degrees, each of these organizations
conducted scientific assessments, produced management plans,
initiated conservation schemes, and held inter-state negotiations
to improve the water regulation and ecological condition of the
Aral Sea.135
Opinions differ on what all this work and funding actually
accomplished.136 Several agreements were reached on the
management of water in the Syr Darya basin and the institu-
tions established to implement them.137 However, the actual
allocations of water remain hostage to yearly barter agreements
among the states.138 Moreover, while the ecological condition of
the Aral Sea region has been improved, it remains unlikely that
this body of water will ever be restored to its pre-1960s level.139
Among the many explanations for these outcomes, two warrant
thorough consideration. One is that nearly all the inter-state
negotiations sponsored by international agencies focused on the
nexus of water and energy, but devoted insufficient attention to
agriculture.140 As a result, parties ignored environmental issues
in the Syr Darya basin that were caused by water-intensive pro-
duction and other critical agricultural policies.141 Second, many
of the international funders and agencies were not organized
enough to assure substantial outcomes, while the local actors
with whom they interacted lacked commitment to the projects
and offered only hollow promises.142
Additionally, international involvement with water manage-
ment in Central Asia has focused on promoting reform along
the lines of Integrated Water Resource Management (“IWRM”),
usually coupled with the rehabilitation of infrastructure.143 In the
Ferghana Valley, for example, the Swiss Agency for Develop-
ment and Cooperation has run an IWRM project in cooperation
with the ICWC since 2001.144 The aim of the project was to
improve and reorganize the institutional arrangements for water
management.145 This included the restructuring of water man-
agement on the basis of hydrological rather than administrative
boundaries, and increasing farmers’ participation in decision-
making.146 The project was joined by an effort towards Canal
Automation, which would automate the measurement of water
flows and the transmission of data.147 More generally, interna-
tional funders and organizations have been involved in decen-
tralizing irrigation management along the lines of IWRM have
established Water User Associations (“WUAs”). Major donor
organizations promoting this work include the World Bank and
Asian Development Bank in Kyrgyzstan, USAID in Uzbekistan
and Kazakhstan, and the World Bank in Tajikistan. 148
Irrigation reform based on IWRM principles altered the
structure of water management in Central Asia. For example,
International donors have established a large number of WUAs
and introduced water service fees in Central Asia.149 Consider-
able progress has recently been made to actually collect water
fees, a process which was initially under-enforced.150 Nonethe-
less, shortcomings remain.151 WUAs usually enjoy little legiti-
macy in the irrigation communities in which they operate, exert
limited influence on the actual distribution of water compared to
informal authorities, and are frequently misunderstood as an arm
of the state instead of representatives of local communities.152
Yet it remains unclear who is to blame for these shortcomings.
Dr. Jenniver Sehring, a policy associate at Ecologic Institute, has
analyzed the irrigation reforms in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan,
finding that WUAs themselves must bear responsibility for their
modest impact on the distribution of water.153 Thus, the WUAs’
failures stem from their faulty implementation.
IWRM is a prescriptive concept predicated on the belief that
democratic governance is good governance.154 IWRM is based
on a market economy and democratic governance inspired by
neo-liberal thinking and assumes that the conditions for such
governance are already in place.155 As a consequence, IWRM
is “politically blind” to the actual political economy and power
relations which exist in the Ferghana Valley, especially in
Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.156 It is questionable whether the
IWRM goals of economic decentralization, self-government,
and empowerment of water users can ever be achieved within
strongly centralized governance systems.
At present, another major organization in Central Asian
water relations is the bilateral donor Deutsche Gesellschaft für
Internationale Zusammenarbeit (“GIZ”).157 GIZ is commis-
sioned by the German Federal Foreign Office to run the program
“Transboundary Water Management in Central Asia” during the
period of 2009-2011, targeting all five countries of the region.158
The program aims to enhance the expertise and capacity of
supra-state water management institutions and the International
Fund for the Aral Sea (“IFAS”).159 An additional focus is on
the improvement of management by river basin organizations
situated on selected cross-border rivers.160 GIZ approaches
these issues with the advisory support of experts, the training of
personnel, and the creation and facilitation of forums to foster
29FALL 2011
interdisciplinary and cross-regional exchange.161 GIZ also provides
funds for technical equipment, refurbishment of irrigation infra-
structure, demonstration facilities, and small hydroelectric plants.162
Irrigated agriculture is likely to continue to play a major
role in Central Asia, particularly in the Ferghana Valley.163 It
remains the source of people’s livelihoods and the backbone
of the economies of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and of Kyrgyzstan,
especially because of the water-energy nexus.164 Desertification
of the Aral Sea basin remains a critical issue affecting all Cen-
tral Asian countries.165 Although largely a result of poor Soviet
management, like water diversion schemes, the Aral Sea basin
remains a major environmental concern and an area of politi-
cal contention.166 In the coming years, the possible restoration
of infrastructure and the correction of existing flaws remain a
daunting challenge due to the social and economic concerns.167
Constructing and maintaining a viable water management
infrastructure will be a critical step towards mitigating the ten-
sion over water as the expansion of agriculture further forces
nations to secure their own water needs even at the expense of
a neighboring country.168 Estimates from scholars Dukhovny
and Sokolov show the cost of such repairs throughout the Aral
Sea basin would reach $16 billion.169 Still, this figure does not
include the cost of applying water-saving technologies or adding
new hydropower complexes.170
Identifying sources of such large investments will be a
major challenge that cannot be borne by the Central Asian states
alone.171 Moreover, while the updating of irrigation systems is
seemingly a matter of technical considerations, the physical,
economic, and legal configuration of such systems are also
shaped by the character of property rights and user relations.172
Any effective step towards improving and expanding irrigation
systems in the Ferghana Valley must address the social and
political challenges relating to irrigated agriculture. Decisions
on what form of irrigated agriculture are economically viable,
environmentally sustainable, and ethically acceptable in the
Ferghana Valley should be the result of social negotiation. Fur-
thermore, that negotiation requires considering both the existing
political economies and the needs of people’s livelihoods.
As outlined above, the dilapidated infrastructural heritage
of the late Soviet period has left huge problems which must be
addressed. Water is limited in the Ferghana Valley and might
become even scarcer in the Syr Darya basin over time due to
climate change and population increase.173 Moreover, these
concerns are at the same time bound up with state territorializa-
tion and the construction of new collective identities.174 Yet, the
evidence presented above suggests that the core conflicts over
land and water do not trace back to any inherent ethnic animosi-
ties, but to the to the economic and social modes that define the
lives of each group.175 This becomes particularly relevant as the
ongoing processes of state-building foster new economic and
moral attachments. Therefore, the decision of the bilateral and
tripartite border commissions involving Kyrgyzstan, Uzbeki-
stan, and Tajikistan on the final delimitation and demarcation of
the Ferghana Valley will have a decisive impact on these con-
flicts.176 However, the border commissions have not yet finished
their work and the process is likely to be slow at best.177 The
historical changes of these borders and their linkages with the
spatial layout irrigation infrastructure must be taken into account
if conflict over water is to be addressed.
International actors have been engaged with water and
ecological issues in the Ferghana Valley for fifteen years, and
they are likely to continue such work in the future.178 Large sums
have been invested, but limited results have been attained.179
This is partly the result of the normal work constraints of the
involved international agencies. However, involvement has
largely taken place within the framework of promoting neo-
liberal reforms leading to market economies and democratic
politics in the region.180 In the area of water management, the
IWRM model was promoted both for its own survival and also
as an indirect means of providing some kind of quid pro quo for
broader governance reforms.181 This may not always be the most
productive way to resolve pressing water problems as overly nor-
mative or prescriptive approaches may divert attention from the
stubborn realities on the ground. It is thus necessary to rethink
approaches to water management and allow room for alternative
Yearly barter agreements remain the central mechanism
to determine water and energy transfers between upstream and
downstream countries.182 Again, it is important to note that they
do not only result from interstate relations characterized by an
uncooperative mode, but also from the domestic politics in the
respective states.183 Currently Kyrgyzstan is still cash-strapped
and, thus, limited in acquiring energy carriers from abroad.184
Kyrygyzstan’s inevitable need for heating during cold winters,
and the government’s inability to provide sufficient electricity,
is likely to give rise to public discontent and political unrest.185
Operating the Toktogul reservoir to generate hydropower in win-
tertime, therefore, is an urgent political and economic concern
of the government of Kyrgyzstan.186 A similar logic applies to
Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan interests in the construction of Kam-
bar-Ata and Rogun dams as well as hydropower plants. Beyond
solving perennial power shortages, both countries also hope
to export electricity to Central Asia and neighbors and, thus,
become regional energy suppliers.187
Conversely, political elites in Uzbekistan, and to some extent
Tajikistan, rely on cotton production in the Ferghana Valley to
generate income and to support the existing system of social,
political, and economic control.188 This partly accounts for lead-
ers’ unwillingness to change to less water-intensive crops in the
Ferghana Valley.189 Furthermore, any related economic change
may not sustain the existing, cotton reliant systems, which are
based on exploitation and rent-seeking.190 Thus, the annual ad hoc
barter agreements on the use of Syr Darya’s water may be less the
result of inter-state cooperation and more the result of the conflict-
ing political interests of domestic actors within each country.
Addressing the challenges in Central Asia requires the reas-
sessment of domestic and regional policies, including improve-
ment to the water management infrastructure of the Aral Sea
basin. Additionally, any improvements to, or expansion of, the
irrigation systems in the Ferghana Valley must first consider the
social and political challenges relating to irrigated agriculture.
International actors need to consider alternative approaches to
water management outside of the prevailing neo-liberal reforms.
Only by assessing the spatial layout of watercourses and irriga-
tion infrastructure can resource management effectively avert
conflicts over water and land in Central Asia.
Endnotes: Liquid Challenges: Contested Water in Central Asia
1 Sergei Vinogradov, Transboundary Water Resources in the Former Soviet
Union: Between Conflict and Cooperation, 36 NAT. RESOURCES J. 393, 398
2 Aaron T. Wolf, Conflict and Cooperation Along International Waterways, 1
WATER POLY, 251, 252 (1998).
3 Arun P. Elhance, Hydropolitics: Grounds for Despair, Reasons for Hope, 5
INTL NEGOTIATION, 201, 201-02 (2000).
4 Elhance, id. at 207.
5 Vinogradov, supra note 1, at 397.
6 Vinogradov, supra note 1, at 398.
7 Jonathon Michael Thurman, Modes of Organization in Central Asian Irri-
gation: the Ferghana Valley, 1876 to Present, i, 9 (Oct. 1, 1999) (unpublished
Ph.D. dissertation, Indiana University), microformed on UMI Microform
9962737 (Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company) [hereinafter J.
Thurman, Dissertation].
[hereinafter U.N. ENVT PROGRAMME].
9 U.N. ENVT PROGRAMME, id. at 15.
10 Elena Antipova et al., Optimization of Syr Darya Water and Energy Uses,
27 WATER INTL 504, 506 (2002).
11 J. Thurman, Dissertation, supra note 7, at 223.
12 J. Thurman, Dissertation, supra note 7, at 223.
13 ICWC, Irrigation of Uzbekistan: Technical Progress in Irrigation, INTER-
STATE COMMN FOR WATER COORDINATION OF CENTRAL ASIA (Sept. 2011), http:// Refer to the following website for data on reservoirs, which
store and regulate the water of the Syr Darya river:
syrdarya/pdf/syr_reser_all_e.pdf, (last visited Sept. 12, 2011).
14 Antipova et al., supra note 10, at 504.
15 Antipova et al., supra note 10, at 504.
16 Antipova et al., supra note 10, at 507.
17 Antipova et al., supra note 10, at 506.
18 Antipova et al., supra note 10, at 505-06.
19 Antipova et al., supra note 10, at 504.
20 Antipova et al., supra note 10, at 504.
21 J. Thurman, Dissertation, supra note 7, at 242-45.
23 Id. at 6.
24 Antipova et al., supra note 10, at 505.
25 Antipova et al., supra note 10, at 505.
MENT, WORLD BANK 1 (2002) [hereinafter M. THURMAN].
28 J. Thurman, Dissertation, supra note 7, at 187-88.
29 See, e.g., Philip Micklin, The Aral Sea Crisis and Its Future: An Assess-
ment in 2006, 47 EURASIAN GEOGRAPHY & ECON. 546, 550-52 (2006).
30 M. THURMAN, supra note 28, at 7.
31 BUCKNALL, supra note 27, at 4.
CONFLICT i, 6 (2002),
asia/Central%20Asia%20Water%20and%20-Conflict.pdf (last visited Sept. 12,
33 Id. at 6.
34 Id. at 1.
35 M. THURMAN, supra note 28, at 8.
36 M. THURMAN, supra note 28, at 33.
37 Agreement between the Republic of Kazakhstan, the Republic of Kirgyzstan,
the Republic of Uzbekistan, The Republic of Tajikistan and Turkmenistan on
Cooperation in the Field of Joint Water Resource Management and Conserva-
tion of Interstate Resources. For a translation refer to http://www.cawater-info.
net/library/eng/l/ca_cooperation.pdf (last visited Sept. 14, 2011) [hereinafter
38 Micklin, supra note 29, at 550-51.
39 For further reference, see the ICWC website:, (last
visited Sept. 12, 2011).
40 For an overview of interstate agreements in Central Asia see http://www., (last visited Oct. 15, 2011).
41 Daene C. McKinney, Cooperative Management of Transboundary Water
PATH INTO THE 21ST CENTURY, 187, 188-89 (Dan Burghart & Theresa Sabonis-
Helf eds., 2004).
42 See Agreement Between the Governments of the Republic of Kazakhstan,
the Kyrgyz Republic, and the Republic of Uzbekistan on the Use of Water and
Energy Resources in the Syr Darya Basin, CA WATER INFO
(Oct. 27, 2011, 9:13 AM),
water_energy.pdf, (last visited Sept. 15, 2011).
43 Dinara Ziganshina, International Water Law in Central Asia: Commit-
ments, Compliance and Beyond, 20 J. WATER LAW, 96, 99 (2010).
44 Agreement between the Governments of the Republic of Kazakhstan, the
Kyrgyz Republic, and the Republic of Uzbekistan on the Use of Water and
Energy Resources in the Syr Darya Basin, supra note 42, at 3.
45 Eric W. Sievers, Water, Conflict and Regional Security in Central Asia, 10
N.Y.U. ENVTL. L.J. 356, 372 (2001-2002).
46 Anitpova, et al., supra note 10, at 504.
47 ICG ASIA REPORT NO. 34, supra note 32, at 20.
48 Anitpova, et al., supra note 10, at 505.
49 Anitpova, et al., supra note 10, at 506-07.
50 ICG ASIA REPORT NO. 34, supra note 32, at 14.
ed., 2003) [hereinafter SERVICE REFORM INITIATIVE],
publications/2003/243/final.pdf (last visited Oct. 15, 2011).
52 ICG ASIA REPORT NO. 34, supra note 32, at 15.
53 ICG ASIA REPORT NO. 34, supra note 32, at 15.
54 ICG ASIA REPORT NO. 34, supra note 32, at 16.
55 ICG ASIA REPORT NO. 34, supra note 32, at 16.
56 ICG ASIA REPORT NO. 34, supra note 32, at 15.
57 ICG ASIA REPORT NO. 34, supra note 32, at 15-16.
WATER PROBLEMS OF CENTRAL ASIA 76-77 (Friedrich Ebert Stiftung ed., 2004).
59 ICG ASIA REPORT NO. 34, supra note 32, at 15-16.
60 ICG ASIA REPORT NO. 34, supra note 32, at 16.
61 E.L. VALENTINI, ET AL., supra note 59, at 62.
62 ICG ASIA REPORT NO. 34, supra note 32, at 17.
63 SERVICE REFORM INITIATIVE, supra note 51, at 23.
64 ICG ASIA REPORT NO. 34, supra note 32, at 7, 11.
65 MCKINNEY, supra note 42, at 181, 185.
66 WEINTHAL, supra note 23, at 13-14.
continued on page 58