Central Asian Dams Spark Downstream Fears

2013-05-31
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central-asia-rivers-map.jpg
A map showing the rivers of Central Asia.
RFA

Plans by two Central Asian states to build hydropower projects with Russian help on the upper reaches of major regional rivers are causing concern in downstream states, which fear diminished water flows and Moscow’s growing influence in this former part of the Soviet Union, experts say.

One dam, the Kambarata-1, will be built in Kyrgyzstan on the Naryn river, which rises in the Tianshan mountains bordering China's restive northwestern region of Xinjiang and flows down to join Syr Darya, the longest river in Central Asia, which then crosses into Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. 

The second dam, the Rogun, is under construction in Tajikistan on the Vahksh river, which flows down to join the Amu, which flows across the border of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.

Uzbekistan has voiced particular alarm over the projects, saying that its access to water needed for agriculture could soon be reduced, a U.S. scholar of the region told RFA’s Uyghur Service.

“Uzbekistan is heavily dependent upon its cotton production as a state-controlled industry,” said Sean Roberts, director of the International Development Studies Program at George Washington University.

“That industry relies on irrigation from rivers that run downstream from Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan worries that its access to irrigation waters can be controlled by forces beyond its control,” Roberts said.

A second reason for Uzbekistan’s concern may be that the proposed dams in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan would generate “substantial” electricity that could be sold to Afghanistan, thus undercutting Uzbekistan’s own energy exports to its southern neighbor, Roberts said.

“In this context, [the Uzbek capital] Tashkent stands to lose on multiple fronts if these dams are successful,” Roberts said.

Concern over Russia's role

Today’s Central Asian states form a region of high passes and mountains, deserts, and treeless, grassy steppes, much of whose land is too dry and rugged for farming, and the countries’ shared use of water resources has become a cause of growing friction.

Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan’s larger neighbor to the north, also depends on unimpeded water flows from its upstream neighbors, said Sharipjan Nadirov, a professor of geography and economy at Kazakhstan National University.

“The cotton fields and farms of Kazakhstan also rely on the river water of the Amu and Syr,” Nadirov said, adding that the two rivers are also a major source of drinking water for downstream areas.

Meanwhile, heavy Russian investment in the projects—pledged at U.S. $1.7 billion for Kambarata-1 alone—has aroused fears of a new Russian claim to dominance in the region.

“Given the importance of hydro resources in the competition for leadership in the Central Asian region, Russia appears to want to establish control over this strategic resource,” said Alisher Khamidov, a Central Asia expert at Newcastle University in the U.K.

“Uzbekistan has long been wary of Russia’s geopolitical role in Central Asia,” Khamidov said.

'Ready to cooperate'


Speaking to reporters following talks last year in Kyrgyzstan, Russian president Vladimir Putin said that plans for the projects date back to when today’s independent Central Asian states were all Soviet republics.

“No one had any concerns then, bearing in mind that the projects were to be realized in a single state,” Putin said, according to an UzDaily report on Sept. 20.

"The construction of the Kambarata-1 hydropower dam will meet the interests of all Central Asian countries," Kyrgyz president Almazbek Atambayev said following the talks, the online Interfax news outlet reported the same day.

"It will help irrigation in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, but we are aware of the concerns of these countries and are ready to cooperate," he said.

The Central Asian states must now establish better cooperation in water use, “but to date they have proven unable to do so,” George Washington University’s Sean Roberts said.

“They must begin to realize that water will be perhaps the most critical resource for them in the future, and they must explore sustainable ways to share in its use and conservation.”

Reported and translated by Nabijan Tursun for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Written in English by Richard Finney.