Water Shortages In Central Asia: Climate Symptoms And Political Instability

by Finn Procter

The Aral Sea is no more. What was once the fourth largest lake in the world, a lake that produced one-sixth of the Soviet Union’s annual fish catch, is now mostly a salty, poisoned wasteland known as the Aralkum Desert [1]. Across the steppes of Western Kazakhstan and the autonomous republic of Karakalpakstan are strewn entire fishing fleets, rusting slowly in the sun. United Nations Secretary General António Guterres called the shrinking of the Aral Sea the “biggest ecological catastrophe of our time” [2].

The ambitious Soviet agricultural projects of the 1960s led to the lake’s demise. On Moscow’s orders, water from the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers was diverted into the Uzbek desert in order to irrigate vast new farms of cotton and cereals [3]. And although this irrigation successfully made Uzbekistan the largest exporter of cotton in the world by 1988, it also resulted in the thorough despoliation of the region’s freshwater reservoirs [4]. 

The drainage of the Aral Sea is indicative of a wider problem of water insecurity, a problem that has endured through the collapse of the Soviet Union and the independence of the Central Asian republics. Central Asia (a collective term denoting the five countries of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan) is one of the most arid regions in the world, and the fragile patchwork landscape of mountains, deserts, and oases is watered nearly entirely by one source: the Tibetan Plateau [5]. Known as the “Water Tower” of Asia, the Tibetan Plateau supplies freshwater to nearly 2 billion people – yet climate experts fear that it could see a near-total freshwater storage collapse by 2050 [6].

Research published in Nature this year (2022) suggests that the Amu Darya basin, within the Tibetan Plateau, has shown a decline of 119% in water-supply capacity, and that climate change over the last few decades has already led to a severe depletion in terrestrial water storage, to the tune of 15.8 gigatons per year in some areas [6]. “We can expect a near collapse — that is, nearly 100% loss — of water availability to downstream regions of the Tibetan Plateau,” said Michael Mann, professor of atmospheric science at Penn State University. “I was surprised at just how large the predicted decrease is, even under a scenario of modest climate policy” [5]. Other recent studies show that mean annual temperatures in Central Asia are expected to rise, while mean monthly river discharge will decrease in the summer months over the next century [7].

Central Asia is particularly vulnerable to the vicissitudes of a drier world. Agriculture remains the primary sector and apart from in the northernmost reaches of Kazakhstan, this agriculture remains reliant on irrigation [8]. To make matters worse, the limited supply of freshwater is shared between five countries that are characterised by undemocratic, often unstable governing regimes, that are prone to inflationary provocation and beset by civil unrest. And tensions are exacerbated further by the fact that upstream and downstream countries have diverging interests concerning water usage; while upstream Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan use water for hydroelectric power generation, downstream Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan need water for food and cotton production. In summary, the Central Asian countries are not good at sharing, at a time when limited but heavily in demand resources are becoming scarcer in supply. 

Domestic and international conflict over water has already occurred in Central Asia. Recent examples include violent clashes between the Kyrgyz and Tajik military in 2014 over a sluice in the Kyrgyz village of Ak-Sai, and Uzbek-Kyrgyz border conflicts in 2016 [8]. In the three decades since Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan became independent, hundreds of people have been killed in disputes over shared water resources in the fertile Ferghana Valley, which is divided between the three nations [8]. A hotter and drier climate will only increase the frequency and severity of these conflicts, and the region is ill-equipped to resolve these conflicts. Post-Soviet attempts to improve international cooperation over water usage, for instance the signing of the Almaty Agreement in 1992, and the subsequent establishment of the Interstate Commission for Water Coordination of Central Asia, have all failed at quelling disputes over resources [8].

The Pacific Institute defines three paradigms of water conflict: 1) water as a trigger or root cause of conflict, where there is a dispute over the control of or access to water; 2) water as a weapon of conflict, where water resources or systems are used as a tool or weapon in a violent conflict; and 3) water resources or systems as an intentional or incidental casualty of conflict. These water conflicts have a long and lugubrious history. For instance, during the Peloponnesian War in the fifth century BCE, the Spartans contaminated the main water supply network of the Athenians at Piraeus, causing a plague epidemic in Athens. In the twelfth century CE, Saladin, first sultan of the Ayyubid dynasty, was able to defeat the Christian crusaders at Galilee by filling all the wells in the area with sand. Dams during World War 2 were targeted by both Allied and Axis forces, for example along the Dnieper, Svir, Möhne, and Eder rivers [9]. 

To this day, 2.1 billion people do not have access to safe, readily available drinking water, and many of these people live in the most politically unstable regions in the world [10]. Many analysts have thus predicted that “the next war…will be fought over water” [11]. This prognosis has been repeated to such an extent that it has become a truism, platitude and pabulum. No full scale ‘water war’ has yet occurred. In 2019, The Economist (2019) published an article titled “Whatever happened to the water wars?” [12]. The truth is that the notable absence of full-scale water-induced warfare has concealed the ongoing existence of smaller-scale and subnational water conflicts, such as those that have occurred in the arid republics of Central Asia, that have killed hundreds and yet gather very little media attention. Those who focus solely on the potential water wars have missed the forest for the trees. With a rapidly changing climate, water conflicts will likely continue unabated. If geopolitical actors want to avoid another Aral Sea, water as a resource will need to be prioritised. 

Reference List

[1] Dowling, S. (2016). The ghostly fishing fleet stranded in a desert. BBC Future. [online] Available at: https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20160915-the-aralkum-deserts-ghostly-fishing-fleet
[2] United Nations. (2017). Aral Sea ‘Probably Biggest Ecological Catastrophe of Our Time’, Secretary-General Says, Stressing Need to Act Forcefully in Preventing Tragedy from Multiplying. [online] Available at: https://press.un.org/en/2017/sgsm18565.doc.htm
[3] Kapuscinsk, R. (1994). Imperium. Granta: London.
[4] USDA-Foreign Agriculture Service (2013). “Cotton Production Ranking”. National Cotton Council of America. 
[5] Saxena, A. (2022). How climate change is driving water scarcity in Asia. DW. [online] Available at: https://www.dw.com/en/how-climate-change-is-driving-water-scarcity-in-asia/a-62919032
[6] Li, X., Long, D., Scanlon, B. R., Mann, M. E., Li, X., Tian, F., Sun, Z., & Wang, G. (2022). Climate change threatens terrestrial water storage over the Tibetan Plateau. Nat. Clim. Chang. 12, 801–807.
[7] Didovets, I., et al. (2021). Central Asian rivers under climate change: Impacts assessment in eight representative catchments. Journal of Hydrology: Regional Studies. 34, 100779.
[8] Rheinbay, J., et al. (2021). A threat to regional stability: Water and conflict in Central Asia. PeaceLab. 
[9]Pacific Institute (2022) Water Conflict Chronology. Pacific Institute, Oakland, CA. https://www.worldwater.org/water-conflict/.
[10] World Health Organisation. (2019). 1 in 3 people globally do not have access to safe drinking water. https://www.who.int/news/item/18-06-2019-1-in-3-people-globally-do-not-have-access-to-safe-drinking-water-unicef-who
[11] Whigham, N. (2018). The wars of the future will be fought over water not oil. New York Post. https://nypost.com/2018/10/19/the-wars-of-the-future-will-be-fought-over-water-not-oil/[12] The Economist. (2019). Whatever happened to the water wars? https://www.economist.com/graphic-detail/2019/11/18/whatever-happened-to-the-water-wars
Categories International Policy

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