Afghan solutions lead to Central Asian crisis
By Timothy Spence
TASHKENT - International efforts to replace poppy fields with food crops and
improve living standards in impoverished northern Afghanistan seem undeniable
progress in the conflict-ridden country.
But some experts worry that these efforts will have unintended negative
consequences for the nation's neighbors, where water and energy resources are
sparse and tensions run high.
For years, donors to Afghanistan have sought to boost agricultural production
in the relatively peaceful north of the country. Many hope to tap Tajikistan's
vast hydro-electricity potential to spur economic development in the region.
But more crop production in Afghanistan and power generation in
Tajikistan, where borders straddle one of Central Asia's most important rivers,
the Amu Darya, could increase the strain on downstream water supplies that are
already the cause of anxiety in the region, particularly between Uzbekistan and
its neighboring nations.
"Everyone wants to see an end to the conflict in Afghanistan, and one way to
achieve that is to improve the economy," said Struan Stevenson, a Scottish
member of the European parliament who has worked as an environmental advisor in
But by putting new stresses on the Amu Darya, he said, "you could create a
whole number of mini-Afghanistans downstream, with conflict breaking out all
over the place."
The Amu Darya and the northern Syr Darya, both of which flow to the shrinking
Aral Sea, are vital to a sea basin population of more than 42 million.
The rivers and a network of tributaries provide electricity for Kyrgyzstan and
Tajikistan and irrigation for the arid downstream nations Kazakhstan and
Uzbekistan, which, in addition to being rich in hydrocarbons, are agricultural
Uzbekistan, one of the world's largest cotton exporters, has been locked in
years-long disputes with Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan over ambitions to build new
dams and reservoirs as well as massive hydro-power stations that were abandoned
when the Soviet Union disintegrated.
Leaders in upstream Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan say their ambitious dam-building
plans are essential for development of these fragile nations endowed with
glaciers and water supplies.
But both Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan have strong reservations about these plans,
fearing the impact on their water supplies and by extension the Aral Sea.
Recurring droughts, food shortages, ethnic unrest, and sour political relations
do little to ease stress in the region. Relations are brittle, skirmishes
between border guards are common, and Tajik authorities have accused their
Uzbek counterparts of playing politics with humanitarian relief by blocking aid
trains heading to Afghanistan.
Water and energy resources contribute to the friction. Last year, a regional
body tasked with promoting water cooperation failed to reach agreement on water
sharing during the growing season.
Two years ago, President Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan announced he would unplug
his country from the Central Asian electricity grid, severing one of the last
remaining links from the Soviet era and an important means of sharing power.
Kazakhstan also pulled out of the grid.
During a trip to Central Asia last April, United Nations secretary general Ban
Ki-moon urged Central Asian leaders to cooperate on water sharing in order to
reduce regional tensions. Still, fears of escalating conflict remain.
Erica Marat, a Washington-based specialist on Central Asian militaries, says
Uzbekistan has drafted plans for seizing dams in neighboring countries, while
Kyrgyz and Tajik commanders have worked out scenarios for defending their
hydro-power operations from Uzbekistan.
"Whether this scenario is a possibility is another question, but there is a
threat perception in the Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan establishment," Marat told
Inter Press Service.
Marton Krasznai, a Central Asian regional adviser for the UN Economic
Commission for Europe, warned in a recent speech on Afghan reconstruction that
Central Asia's water supplies "are under stress already. Economic development
and demographic growth are likely to further increase demand for water."
"While Central Asian countries have so far managed to resolve their disputes
over water in a peaceful way, warning signs of tensions are there," Krasznai
"This shows an unusual level of political tension among Central Asian
Today's problems stem from the Soviet era. The 2,400-kilometer Amu Darya and
2,300-kilometer Syr Darya, along with their tributaries, were dammed or
engineered to provide electricity to the underdeveloped region and to turn arid
Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan into wheat and cotton producers.
The Soviet collapse changed the political dynamics but not the demand. Efforts
to create cooperative institutions on water sharing began in the early 1990s,
but the Interstate Commission for Water Coordination and the International Fund
for the Aral Sea have little power and are broadly viewed as ineffective.
Today, the draining of the two main rivers and steady destruction of the Aral
Under international pressure, Tajikistan has agreed to halt work on the massive
Rogun dam on the Vakhsh River pending the results of a World Bank- led impact
study, due within a year.
Still, Rogun is likely to proceed regardless of the study and despite Uzbek
concerns. Tajik authorities say the project begun by Soviet engineers in the
1970s is essential to improving the domestic electricity supply - shortages are
endemic in the country of 6.9 million people - and providing surplus
electricity to sell to needy Afghanistan.
Rogun would have the capacity to produce 3,600 megawatts of electricity -
nearly one-quarter of the nation's current annual output.
Stevenson, who also served as an environmental adviser to the Organization for
Security and Cooperation in Europe in 2010, when Kazakhstan held the rotating
chairmanship, sees Rogun as a prime example of the need for regional
"It seems to me that it is a win-win project and it will allow properly managed
water supplies to continue to flow downstream," he said.
"What we have to ensure is that the water, when it arrives in downstream
nations like Uzbekistan, is properly managed there as well."