The water and energy conflict in Central Asia

One of the significant factors impeding the process of integration between Central Asian countries is the question of water and energy resources of this region. The historical prerequisites of the present-day situation go back to the times of the former Soviet Union. In this era, the region relied upon a united water, energy and socio-economic system on an all-union scale; the division of all significant resources, including both water and energy resources from the direction of the so-called Centre - in other words Moscow. The collapse of this centralised system, with the countries of Central Asia acquiring national independence, changed not only the socio-economic status but also the geopolitical situation in the region.

This shows the huge importance of state borders that acquired a new meaning following the breakup of the USSR. The previously unified systems have now taken on a transboundary character. The water (the trans-border Rivers of Amu Darya and Syr Darya) and energy conflicts of the countries of the region serve as a clear example of this. This partly serves the growth of militarisation (especially along the borders) and sometimes open confrontation between the states of Central Asia.

For example, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan on the one hand, and Uzbekistan on the other, are continuing to wage a conflict over the construction of the Rogunsk and Kambaratinsk (Kambarata-1) Hydro Power Plant. Whilst Tajikistan places the main emphasis on the location of the hydroelectric power station and its right to build the hydroelectric sites to solve the country’s energy problems, the Uzbek side is constantly confirming that its position is fully in accordance with the standards of international law.

This is why in Uzbekistan’s official position, reference is often made to the UN Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes of 17 March 1992 and the Law of the [Non-Navigational] Uses of International Watercourses of 21 May 1997. The Rogunsk question made Uzbekistan activate its participation in international organisations that are involved in a search to solve water problems on a global scale, like the World Water Council and the International Commission on Large Dams (ICOLD). Officially, Tashkent has also activated the organisation and holding of various regional and international water conferences in Uzbekistan.

The current phase of this water and energy dispute began in 2008, and since then Tashkent and Dushanbe (officially Bishkek is less active) have been making significant diplomatic efforts to initiate international discussions about the problems of the gigantic hydroelectric power stations. Such diplomatic efforts have been accompanied by an information war waged by one neighbouring state against the other. The following examples speak of the attempts by each state involved to attract the support of a third party in order to solve the conflict.

The parties are continuing the confrontation and at the same time, militarisation and border incidents in the region are on the rise. For example, border incidents occurred in February 2010 between the Uzbek and Tajik and in December 2011 the Uzbek and Kyrgyz borders. These events acutely exacerbated the difficult relations between the neighbouring republics.

Apart from this, there has recently been a constant rise in the military budgets of the countries of the region. Uzbekistan allocates the most to defence, with a military budget that exceeds 10% of the country’s GDP and is around 2 billion US dollars.

On 17 March 2010 at a press conference on the results of the official visit of the President of Kazakhstan to Uzbekistan, the presidents of the two countries spoke against the construction of the Rogunsk Hydro Power Plant in Tajikistan and the Kambarata-1 Hydro Power Plant in Kirghizia without calling on international expert opinion. At the same time, the parties make assurances that if they received a positive conclusion of the experts of these projects, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan may enter a consortium for the construction of these large energy sites.1

Speaking at the session of the UN General Assembly on questions of the International Decade for Action ‘Water for Life’ - 2005 - 2015, the Uzbek and Tajik delegations voiced opposing positions on the problem of the Aral Sea. During his visit to Dushanbe in January 2010, Pierre Morel (the EU Special Representative on the countries of Central Asia),, announced Brussels' willingness to allocate 60 million dollars to Tajikistan, in order for Tajikistan to build a few, small hydroelectric power stations instead of one big one. 2 The crucial moment in this war of national diplomacies came on 25 March 2010, when the World Bank declared its intention to conduct an independent expert appraisal of the technical justifiability, ecological and social risks and expected benefits of the Rogunsk Hydro Power Plant. In its declaration, the World Bank emphasised that the participation of the World Bank in the proposed hydroelectric power plant construction project depended on the confirmation of the technical, economic, ecological and social expediency and viability of the project, as well as the consultations being held properly with the interested states in the Aral Sea Basin.

Despite this, the water and energy dispute still remains unresolved. Bishkek and Dushanbe do not intend to turn down their projects to construct the Kambaratinsk and Rogunsk Hydro Power Plants, although the governments of these countries have agreed to call on international expert opinion, having thereby partially agreed with Tashkent’s position. Then Tashkent was also compelled to turn down its tone a little, making a new declaration about the fact nobody intended to deny the rights of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan to construct the hydroelectric power plants, but these sites must only be built if there is a positive conclusion of international independent expert opinion.

In our opinion, the effective and peaceful resolution of the water and energy disputes of the region of Central Asia must include the following components:

  1. Disputes between states cannot be allowed to develop into armed conflict. Armed incidents on the state borders of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan having become more frequent recently, and there is a noticeable acceleration in the rate of militarisation of the countries of Central Asia, which points to a reduction in the chances of the peaceful settlement of this issue.

  2. All disputing parties must unite in a common conciliation commission set up under the auspices of one of the existing authoritative international organisations. This commission should be empowered to develop a mutually acceptable way to resolvethe water and energy disputes of the region. We consider that the demand of the Uzbek side about the need to call on independent international expert opinion of the planned hydro projects on the transboundary rivers of the region is appropriate. Nevertheless, we should not deny the objective need of the peoples of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan for energy resources either;

  3. Mutually beneficial interests between the countries of Central Asia, diplomacy and respect for international law, as well as each other’s rights should become the guidelines in solving the accumulated issues.

If we do not adhere to the above indicated conditions, the conflict of interests that has arisen is capable of destroying the fragile socio-economic and political situation in Central Asia and could lead to the disintegration of the region.

Translation from the Russian: Justin Hoffman

1 “Tashkent and Astana: is the competition continuing?” KZ Press-Club, 26 March 2010

2 “Tajikistan and Uzbekistan have called for the fair and rational use of the water resources of Central Asia”, Fregana.ru news agency, 23 March 2010

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