In the coming years the countries of the Syr Darya basin (including upstream Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan and downstream Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan) face the task of finding a common water regime in order to tackle growing energy and water demands as well as avert future crises of poor inter-state coordination of water resources. Any effort to facilitate cooperation and better management of water in the region by the international community, however, are stalled by the Central Asian governments’ unwillingness to compromise, inability to plan in the long-term, or their mere lack of knowledge of international law.
BACKGROUND: The Syr Darya River originates in the Tian Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan (as the Naryn River), flows to eastern Uzbekistan, crosses mountainous Tajikistan and then again flows into Uzbekistan, reaching southern Kazakhstan and ending in the northern part of Aral Sea. On its way to the sea, the river crosses a dozen of water reservoirs, feeds over 20 million people, and irrigates thousands of cotton fields. The river has long been a source of dispute among the Central Asian states, with upstream countries claiming their right to sell water as a commodity, while downstream countries having natural gas leverage against Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
This year, facing growing troubles with water release from the Toktogul reservoir in Kyrgyzstan that found itself left with critically low levels of water ahead of the cold season, all four states of the basin tried to come up with a regional solution to water regulation. The fist several rounds of negotiations held in September failed, with Uzbekistan refusing to show up because its prerequisite of the transboundary status of the Syr Darya River being recognized, which Kyrgyzstan did not meet. Despite these disagreements, Kyrgyzstan was able to broker deals with Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan on provision of gas and electricity since water at the Toktogul reservoir will be saved for the irrigation season. Yet, promised imports of gas and electricity may not be sufficient for Kyrgyzstan’s needs, and shortages of electricity may be felt already in February 2009.
The current dilemma in the Syr Darya Basin – in rough term – reflects Kyrgyzstan’s misinterpretation of international regulations and Uzbekistan’s disinterest in building hydro-power plants (HHP) in Kyrgyzstan. At the same time, the Kyrgyz government is trying to sell water to Uzbekistan as a commodity since it has the ability to regulate water release from the Toktogul reservoir. According to international law, however, upstream countries have the right to sell only services associated with water resources such as storage and release of water at HPPs. Uzbekistan, in turn, opposes any idea of additional HPPs in Kyrgyzstan or Tajikistan due to both states’ prospective ability to unilaterally manage water services. Uzbekistan is right to claim the transnational status of Syr Darya, however, it is in the country’s best interests to have Kyrgyzstan build hydro-energy infrastructure that will allow the release of water even during low water periods.
IMPLICATIONS: Amid the crisis in Kyrgyzstan’s hydro-energy sector, the Kyrgyz government has been producing false reports about the state of the sector. Among the more disingenuous government statements were those concerning the construction of the Kambarata-2 HHP on the Naryn River. Kyrgyz president Kurmanbek Bakiyev promised the building of Kambarat-2 without clarifying who would be the investor, and whether the Kambarata-1 plant would be constructed as well. According to an analysis by the World Bank, however, Kambarata-2 HPP will not be able to function properly unless Kambarata-1 is installed. Furthermore, both projects are economically unattractive to foreign investors, and Kyrgyzstan is short of necessary financial resources and expertise to complete them. Bakiyev’s promises, in essence, reflect the detrimental lack of expertise in the hydro-energy sector among policy-making community in Kyrgyzstan and its interest in acquiring fast revenues from questionable deals as opposed to long-term planning.
Local experts have been pointing at rampant corruption around Kambarata-2, including alleged embezzlement of the state budget under the cover of the construction project. Both Kambarata-1 and Kambarata-2, rather, are political investments as opposed to economic ones. Their returns are unclear, and construction costs are high. But once finished, they would have the potential of producing more hydro-energy and manage water in the Syr Darya River so it would meet the interests of downstream Uzbekistan as well. Earlier Kazakh investors showed some interest in investing into the Kambarata HHPs, but the economic crisis hindered any visible Kazakh initiative. Speculations about the U.S.-based AES Corporation’s involvement in Kyrgyzstan are widespread as well, but there is little evidence to speak of.
International experience in transnational water management has shown that building transnational water regimes often takes decades to complete. Most water regime agreements are concluded on the basis of UN laws on the recognition of the transboundary status of rivers that defines access to water resources as a human right independent of citizenship, and on upstream countries’ right to sell water services to downstream countries. Although some Central Asian experts today are voicing their concerns about the state of the energy sector, only a handful delve into its specifics. Most experts blame corruption in the government, yet are unable to identify concrete corruption schemes. Inside the sector itself, the level of professionalism is declining as well. The sector relies mostly on professionals educated during the Soviet period, who are bound to work after passing the retirement age.
The team leader for Central Asia energy programs at the World Bank, Raghuveer Sharma, told Kyrgyz news agency that the hydro-energy sector in Kyrgyzstan needs urgent administrative reform to attract investors. Such reform would take 3-5 years to complete, but promises high returns as Kyrgyzstan would be able to export electricity to Pakistan and other South Asian countries where energy demands are rising.
CONCLUSIONS: Any transnational water regime requires political decision-makers’ accountability to the domestic public as well as neighboring states. All parties involved should plainly and comprehensively outline the potential of water services should new construction or renovation projects be planned. This practice is alien to Central Asian governments. Therefore an expert scrutiny of the decision-making process on the hydro-energy sector and increasing the public debate over its future direction is necessary. Central Asian leaders need to look beyond national borders and examine the implications of a region’s water and hydro-energy needs through the eyes of local communities. For many local government experts and analysts, official border divisions serve as catalysts for confrontation over scarce land and water.