Ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union, water has been a main source of conflict in Central Asia. A recent report by the International Crisis Group has spoken of the need to end the “weaponization of water” and emphasized the importance of technical, rather than politicized, solutions to sharing regional resources like water. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, for example, have threatened to block the downstream flow of water to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan on various occasions. In 2014, at least eight Kyrgyz and Tajik border guards were injured in an hour-long shootout over a strategic sluice in Ak-Sai, a village in the Ferghana Valley near the border between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
According to another International Crisis Group report, “the root of the [water] problem is the disintegration of the resource-sharing system the Soviet Union imposed on the region until its collapse in 1991.” When the Central Asian republics were still part of the Soviet Union, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, both upstream, would release water from their reservoirs in the spring and summer to generate (hydro) electricity and nourish crops both on their own land and downstream in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. The latter two would return the favor by providing heating fuel to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan each winter. Now, however, these four countries are caught in a battle over water. As a result, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are short on water, while Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are short on electricity and other power sources.
But, change is in the air. On March 15, the Central Asian leaders met in the Kazakh capital of Astana for a first-ever consultative meeting to discuss regional economic cooperation and the sharing of transboundary water resources. There are two reasons why this meeting took place and, relatedly, that approaches to water sharing are shifting in the region. First and foremost, Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyaev has been much more open to regional cooperation than his predecessor. The recent consultative meeting was organized at Mirziyaev’s initiative. In September 2016, Mirziyaev succeeded Uzbekistan’s first President Islam Karimov, who had ruled with an iron fist for a quarter of a century. Shortly after Mirziyaev took the reins, the Uzbek and Kazakh governments agreed to build hydroelectric power plants on the Naryn river, which feeds the Syr Darya river that traverses Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.
The second reason is Russia’s changing role in the region. Ever since the Soviet era, Moscow has used a divide-and-rule policy to prevent close cooperation between the Central Asian republics. Since the demise of the Soviet Union, however, Russia has been losing influence in the region. The ethnic-Russian share of Kazakhstan’s population has, for example, gradually fallen from a plurality to less than a quarter. Kazakhstan is, as such, on track to becoming a powerful, independent, Kazakh-centric state that no longer follows orders from Russia.
As a result of the March 15 meeting, which Russia was not invited to, the presidents of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan will meet annually ahead of the Nowruz holiday to discuss regional cooperation, including control over shared waterways. In light of these developments, the end of water’s weaponization in the region may well be in sight.