The collapsed negotiations on a regional water regime between the Ministers of Energy of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan held in Almaty on September 9-10 uncovered deep and intractable disagreements between the states sharing the Syr Darya water basin. The main dispute unraveled between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. While Bishkek warned its neighbor that a lack of coordination on water usage in the winter and summer periods has led to alarmingly low levels of water in the Toktogul reservoir, the main hydro-power site in the country, Tashkent claimed its right for greater control over the Syr Darya.
Once the region’s main exporter of electricity, this winter Kyrgyzstan will be bound to purchase electricity from Kazakhstan, and has agreed to buy Uzbek gas for prices as high as $300 per thousand cubic meters.
Due to an unusually cold winter in 2007-2008, Kyrgyzstan had to release more water than expected from Toktogul for the production of electricity, despite the low water period. Uzbekistan, in turn, was barely affected by the winter crisis and remains able to produce sufficient energy for its domestic consumption from its reserves of coal and natural gas. But because of its need for water for irrigation in summer, Tashkent has expressed its concern with Kyrgyzstan’s excessive release of water during the winter period, and over Kyrgyzstan’s reckless management of the Toktogul reservoir.
In the meantime, partly due to widespread corruption in the hydro-energy sector, severe shortages of electricity were felt throughout Kyrgyzstan already in spring this year when rolling blackouts became a daily norm. In summer, the water level at Toktogul fell to a critical 9,6 billion cubic meters, more than half its usual level. To prepare for electricity shortages in the upcoming winter, the Kyrgyz government switched nearly 8,000 three-phase capacitors into one-phase connections, further encouraging people to stock up coal and collect cow dung to be used as fuel. In the coming months, power outages will reach ten hours a day, considerably slowing down the economy and feeding inflation.
Uzbekistan is opposed to Kyrgyzstan’s plans to build two new hydro-energy plants – the 1900 MW Kambarata-1 and the 240 MW Kambarata-2 on the Naryn River, which is part of the Syr Darya basin. Both plants are at the earliest stages of construction, and it is yet unknown who will become the main investor. The plants would allow Kyrgyzstan to substantially increase the production of electricity for local use, and further permit Kyrgyzstan to decrease water releases from 14,5 to 10,5 billion cubic meters per year. This, in turn, would allow Kyrgyzstan to release less water in winter, when electricity is most needed, and save water for irrigation during summers.
However, Kyrgyzstan’s potential ability to control water releases leads to a vicious circle. Downstream countries must make sure that Kyrgyzstan does not abuse its privileges by acquiring a stronger leverage over them, while any potential investor must know what would be the approximate cooperation agreement between Kyrgyzstan’s neighbors should both hydro-energy plants be constructed. Tashkent’s rebuke of such long-term agreements increases uncertainty, while Kazakhstan’s possible investment into Kambarata would hand Astana additional influence over Tashkent. Ultimately, Central Asian leaders seem to be caught in the classic prisoner’s dilemma, when each is better off not cooperating while potentially rewarding cooperation is stalled because of lack of trust.
As much the politics in the Syr Darya basin seem to be complicated, the heads of state show little interest in considering the needs of the local population. Water is still considered a commodity controlled solely by the government, and little public access to decision-making is allowed. Talks about water management are conducted behind closed doors, and limited information is shared with the mass media. Should Central Asian leaders be more open to the needs of ordinary citizens, their perceived formulas of financial benefits from regional water and electricity trade would have been complemented with concerns over the populations’ well being.
The sudden intensification of Central Asian states’ predisposition to stage talks on water management is preconditioned by the shocking winter of 2007-2008, when sub-zero temperatures coincided with a low water period. Central Asian leaders are aware of the possible repetition of such crises. But a viable water regime seems impossible with the current state of affairs. But, as one Kyrgyz expert says, the Central Asian states have no choice but to keep trying.