Water For Power: Central Asia Cooperates On Transnational Resource Issues

In Central Asia, geography has not apportioned access to natural resources equally. Since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, its five Central Asian successor states have had no central mechanism to redistribute resources and thus overcome each’s a deficiency. Kyrgyzstan, while not blessed with the oil wealth of its neighbours, lies upstream of them on the Naryn River and produces 90% of its electricity from hydropower.

The same water fuels agriculture downstream in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. But the water supply is falling at an alarming rate and has almost reached the critical level at which Kyrgyzstan’s Toktogul Hydropower Plant would struggle to operate. To avoid briefly closing the spillways to accumulate water and thus devastating the agricultural communities reliant on its flow Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan have agreed to supply Kyrgyzstan with electricity for the summers of 2021 to 2023. According to the Kyrgyz Energy and Industry Minister’s statement on 25 March, Kazakhstan will send up to 1 billion kilowatt-hours (kWh) while Uzbekistan has promised 750 million kWh to its eastern neighbour.

Moscow-based political scientist Andrei Kazantsev described the genesis of the issue upon the dissolution of the USSR to the BBC in 2016: “It was food security for the downstream countries versus energy security for the upstream ones.” The effects of losing either is catastrophic. Kazakhs and Uzbekis have long suffered from water shortages, and as sugar beet farmer Asima Dalanbay told the BBC “we can’t live here without water.”

Meanwhile, Kyrgyzstan’s President Sadyr Japarov explained the importance of resolving his country before a recent visit to Kazakhstan. “If the level [in the Toktogul Hydropower Plant] drops to six billion cubic meters (bcm), then we will have to stop the flow altogether and we will head into a catastrophe. There will be no power all over the republic”; the level has fallen from 19.5bcm in August 2017 to 8.7bcm in March 2021. Across Central Asia the implications of the water dispute are concerning, and in the words of Kazakh analyst Rasul Jumali, “no-one really knows what kind of explosion this [public dissatisfaction] could lead to – and when.”

The recent announcement of international cooperation on the inherently transnational issue of water flow is, therefore, to be welcomed. It provides hope for peaceful and negotiated resolutions to such disagreements not only in Central Asia but across the world. Hydropolitics is typically considered a classic example of realist theory; China, for example, could build the Three Gorges Dam and restrict India’s water supply downstream because it is in a stronger geographical position. But Kyrgyzstan has opted to leverage the regional interconnectivity to find a peaceful and mutually beneficial solution, rather than pursue the simplest and cheapest route of closing the spillways. Such actions can help to shape regional relationships and build trust, which reduces the chances of violence between and within nations.

Soviet governance has left a multifaceted legacy in the energy infrastructure of Central Asia. On the one hand, the capacity to centrally control energy supplies in the region allowed the Soviets to maximise production through the specialisation of the republics. Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan were rich in petroleum, while Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan had large reservoirs and water reserves. Thus, local infrastructure and economies developed around these resources while the United Energy System of Central Asia ensured that everyone had water for agriculture in the spring and summer and electricity in the winter. This specialisation caused issues when the once united republics became potential competitors in 1991. On the other hand, the Soviet legacy of cooperation provides a blueprint to help overcome potential crises such as the one currently facing the Toktogul Hydropower Plant. 

The recent agreements between Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan not only provide welcome relief to those facing water or power shortages in the region but also offer hope for non-violent resolutions to future water disputes. Although the measures agreed are no permanent solution, they do demonstrate that peace can be the logical route for all in the face of crisis. While the Central Asian case is helped by a shared history, the choice to deepen rather than shed these bonds may benefit all involved the next time a crisis arises.

Isaac Evans


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