Russia and Eurasia

Central Asian Leaders Clash over Water At Aral Sea Summit

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Joanna Lillis


asummit on the future of the shrinking Aral Sea ended in Almaty without making any tangible progress on resuscitating the endangered sea. If anything, the meeting succeeded only in stoking acrimony among participants on the water-use issue.


The presidents of the five Central Asian states gathered in Kazakhstan’s commercial capital of Almaty on April 28 for a summit of the International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea, set up by the Central Asian leaders in 1993 and currently chaired by Kazakhstan. This was a rare five-way gathering for the region’s heads of state, whose relations are frequently characterized by political and personal contradictions. They came together to discuss ways to protect the Aral Sea which, despite improvements on the northern side in Kazakhstan, continues to shrink. The sea’s fate, Kazakhstani President Nursultan Nazarbayev said, “is recognized by the international community as a major disaster of the 20th century.”


The leaders had no difficulty agreeing on what is causing the sea to shrink — wasteful irrigation from its main feeder rivers, the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya. They also agreed that the disappearing sea is posing health hazards to the estimated 40 million people living in the Aral Sea Basin. “The sea is dying before the eyes of the whole of mankind,” said Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan’s president. He added that Tashkent had spent $1 billion, including funds made available via international loans, on programs related to the sea and living conditions around it in the last decade.


Despite much talk of joint efforts, coordinated actions and rational use of water sources, the countries’ diverging interests once again prevented them from agreeing on a joint action plan. The upstream states of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are pursuing ambitious hydropower projects that downstream states say will affect the flow of cross-border rivers and leave them even shorter of water than they already are.


The upstream states say that the construction of hydropower stations — Kambarata in Kyrgyzstan and Rogun in Tajikistan — is required to solve acute energy shortages that leave the populations in the two respective states shivering in the dark in winter.


Kyrgyzstan’s president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, offered a spirited defense of his country’s hydropower plans, citing figures that he said prove that upstream projects would not affect the flow of cross-border rivers. “Our state has to put special emphasis on hydropower,” said Bakiyev, who will be seeking reelection in July.


Bakiyev’s steadfastness on hydropower plans clearly irked Karimov, who has staunchly opposed plans to build Kambarata, for which Russia has pledged $1.7 billion in credits. “Third countries which would very much like to take part in this discussion are also pursuing their own aims,” Karimov noted in thinly veiled remarks that observers suggested were aimed at Moscow.


Karimov presented a united front at the summit with Turkmenistan’s president, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, with both repeating previous calls for the involvement of an international body such as the United Nations in assessing the impact of regional hydropower projects. Berdymukhamedov also called for a unified regional energy system funded by international organizations, pledging that Turkmenistan would supply gas and electricity. Astana has been calling for a water and energy consortium to manage the fiercely disputed question of the use of the region’s natural resources, but diverging interests have, to date, hindered the Kazakhstani initiative.
Nazarbayev used the summit to confirm that — despite his country’s financial difficulties — Kazakhstan will push ahead with the second phase of a project that has partly rehabilitated the Northern Aral Sea (NAS), which split from the southern section in the 1980s. The NAS started filling up with water following the construction of a dike in 2005, and Kazakhstan’s government and the World Bank are currently examining a feasibility study for the second phase of the project. That will involve building another dike and a canal from the Syr Darya River to promote the further expansion of the northern part of the sea.


Prospects for the revival of the southern Aral remain bleak, Karimov acknowledged. “In Uzbekistan we realize unambiguously that to save the Aral Sea in the full sense of the word is practically impossible,” he said. Projects are needed to improve living conditions for people in the basin, he added.


The summit ended with controversy over the signing of a joint declaration after Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan expressed concern about a clause, and Tajikistan also voiced reservations.

The leaders eventually signed the document, pledging to boost the status of the International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea and hold a donors’ conference in Kazakhstan in 2010. The statement concluded with a confirmation of their “interest in drawing up a mutually acceptable mechanism for the overall use of water resources and the protection of the environment in Central Asia, taking into account the interests of all the region’s states.” However, in the current environment, such a mechanism does not look likely to emerge anytime soon.


Copyright (c) 2003 Open Society Institute. Reprinted with the permission of the Open Society Institute, 400 West 59th Street, New York, NY 10019 USA, or

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