A Threat to Regional Stability: Water and Conflict in Central Asia

20 April 2021   ·   Janna Rheinbay, Sebastian Mayer, Stefanie Wesch, Kira Vinke​

Water availability represents a major challenge for the five Central Asian countries and is increasingly exacerbated by climate change. This has led to violence in the region, bearing the risk of further conflict. Germany should support stronger regional cooperation for transboundary water management to foster security in Central Asia.

Central Asia is prone to climate-related conflict risk. The most visible conflict drivers are climate impacts on water availability, with regional demands exceeding accessible amounts. For instance, previously the fourth-largest lake globally, the Aral Sea has now largely dried up, primarily due to industrial and agricultural over-exploitation. Conflicting interests over water access has recurrently led to violence in the region. Examples include violent clashes between the Kyrgyz and Tajik military in 2014 over a sluice in the Kyrgyz Ak-Sai village and Uzbek-Kyrgyz border clashes in 2016 also related to water. Climate projections and growing demands indicate that regional water scarcity will further increase unless appropriate countermeasures are taken.

Water Availability Currently Hinges on Access, Not Scarcity

Given that Central Asia is abundant in water, with its mountains serving as main water towers, water availability is currently rather a question of access than of scarcity. Access is distributed along the river banks of the two main rivers: the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya. The flow from their sources in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan's mountain ranges through Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan towards the Aral Sea.

Recent studies show that mean annual temperatures in Central Asia are expected to rise, while mean monthly river discharge will decrease in the summer months over the course of this century. Climate impacts are thus likely to further reduce water availability due to evaporation as well as the disappearance of glaciers which currently feed into rivers. Scarcity may not be a problem now, but could turn into one as climate impacts intensify. This development will increase the potential for conflict over available water resources.

Unequal Access to Water Can Lead to Violent Conflict in Unstable Border Regions

Particularly the southern part of Central Asia is severely affected by climate impacts on water availability. For instance, the fertile Ferghana Valley, spread across Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, is dependent on access to water from the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya. It is now at risk of drying up, mainly due to excessive water usage, especially for cotton production, that is aggravated by rising temperatures. The valley is particularly prone to violent conflict over water: an increasing lack of water availability intersects with dense and yet fast-growing populations, ethnic fragmentation, disputed borders, and numerous exclaves within the three countries.

As a result, violent clashes are quite common. In the two decades since Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan became independent, hundreds of people have been killed in disputes over shared water resources in the Ferghana Valley. The region is still not considered stable, and recurring disputes are to be expected unless a sustainable solution can be agreed upon and effectively implemented.

Diverging Interests of Upstream and Downstream Countries Pose a Risk for Regional Stability

During Soviet times, water access in Central Asia was centrally controlled by Moscow. After the five countries gained independence in 1991, old schemes were retained, and allocation quotas from Soviet times still apply. There have been attempts to improve cooperation by creating new institutions. Cases in point are the Almaty Agreement signed in 1992, the Interstate Commission for Water Coordination of Central Asia (ICWC) and further bi- and multilateral agreements. Yet these institutions by and large remain weak and imprecise. A regulatory vacuum has thus surfaced, incentivizing each of the five states to unilaterally strive for privileged access to water, sometimes with ensuing violence.

Part of the conflict potential stems from diverging interests concerning water usage between upstream and downstream countries. Upstream countries (Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan) use water for electricity generation through hydropower plants, whereas downstream countries (Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan) primarily use it for agricultural purposes such as food and cotton production. The construction of a dam such as the Rogun Dam in Tajikistan has implications for transboundary river management: upstream countries can retain water for renewable energy production, while access to the natural water flow may be disrupted downstream, threatening the water availability for crop irrigation. This leaves Uzbekistan, as a downstream country, particularly vulnerable to water constraints.

While centralized Soviet planning compensated upstream Socialist Republics by providing fuel, coal and gas for operating their reservoirs in favour of downstream needs, under current circumstances similar arrangements are harder to achieve. Power dams can principally serve regional stability by both managing the river flow to avoid drought and floods and providing energy access. But this requires carefully balancing conflicting preferences, devising mutually beneficial solutions, sufficiently precise and robust institutions and scientific expertise informing those institutions.

Therefore, robust institutional arrangements are crucial to ensure freshwater supply across the region. However, Central Asia thus far lacks effective transboundary water cooperation. Bi- and multilateral agreements tend to be imprecise, do not sufficiently reflect current water use and protection needs, and are poorly enforced. The good news is that since 2016 under the tenure of Uzbekistan’s current president Shavkat Mirziyoyev, a substantial regional cooperation dynamic has evolved. This has resulted, inter alia, in border demarcation agreements with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan and has lifted objections to the two countries’ Kambar-Ata 1 and Rogun dams.

Foster Climate Forecasting and Water Conservation Capacities

While climate change increases the potential for conflict over already limited resources, this can still be mitigated by appropriate policy responses. In this context, transboundary water cooperation, forecasting and conservation in the region need to be improved to help prevent and mitigate conflict. Water is not just a cause for conflict – it can also be an opportunity for cooperation. To this end, the following policy recommendations should be considered.

  1. An unprecedented level of cooperation between several of the five countries since the political leadership in Uzbekistan changed in 2016 provides a window of opportunity. External donors engaged in Central Asian water resource management and security should use this opportunity to further regional cooperation.
  2. Existing bi- and multilateral intergovernmental agreements particularly between upstream and downstream countries should be amended, or novel agreements crafted if necessary, with allocation quotas better reflecting current local water use and protection needs to balance conflicting interests. To be successful, this process is likely to require external mediation and brokerage.
  3. Regional transboundary water cooperation bodies, such as the ICWC and the two Basin Water Management Agencies for the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya rivers, should be given more independence from political interference by member states and be endowed with wider-reaching control rights and strengthened implementing powers.
  4. The capacities of local climate services and seasonal forecasts should be fostered to support decision making on river administration. The establishment of meteorological stations is key in capacity-building efforts.
  5. Finally, strengthening adaptive capacities forms an integral part of regional measures. Such efforts should include water conservation techniques, water harvesting, and increasing water storage capacities. Additionally, agricultural adaptation could include a change to crops that are more drought-resistant.

Both PIK and DKU are part of the Green Central Asia project funded by the German Federal Foreign Office, which enables regional dialogue on climate change impacts and risks.

Mediation Multilateralismus Climate

Janna Rheinbay

Janna Rheinbay is a researcher at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) where she focuses on the climate-conflict nexus. @JRheinbay

Sebastian Mayer

Dr. Sebastian Mayer is DAAD Associate Professor of International Relations at the Kazakh-German University (DKU) in Almaty, Kazakhstan, focusing on Central Asian security and regional security organizations. @Seb_Mayer_

Stefanie Wesch

Stefanie Wesch is a researcher and doctoral candidate at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK). She has undertaken fieldwork in Niger and Burkina Faso on the relationship between climate change, conflict, and migration. @stefaniewesch

Kira Vinke​

Dr. Vinke is the co-chair of the Advisory Board to the Federal German Government on Civilian Crisis Prevention and Peacebuilding and works at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) as the project lead of EPICC. @KiraVinke