Water in Central Asia

Water in Central Asia: Past, Present, Future

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  • Explores the deep roots of the historical transformations that have caused the present situation of environmental degradation
  • Provides a thorough analysis of the positive ambitions of the region and their possible negative consequences
  • Examines why important development initiatives of the recent past have produced negative consequences
  • Discusses lessons learned from the consequences of recent history and how they may be applied to other similarly vulnerable areas
  • Only book covering this subject with such a broad historical, social, political, and technological width
  • Many data used in this book originate from the Central Asia Regional Water Information Base (CAREWIB), an open database and web portal that provides information on water and environmental issues, regional socio-economic and political facts and figures on the area (http://www.cawater-info.net/index_e.htm)



Central Asia is the cluster of countries located in the basin of the "Great Aral Sea". It originates from the ancient civilizations of the IV-III millennium B.C. known as “Ariana” and is an important geopolitical centre today, where the USA, Russia, China, EU, Iran and India participate in the regional water game. The Aral Sea Basin has always been a subject of interest to outside powers as a target of travel or political blame. At the same time it was a source of prosperity and a place of work, love, history and strong cultural traditions for almost 100 million people. 

At present the Aral Sea Basin is shared by independent states with different interests but at the same time in need of close collaboration for their survival. Much has been written about this region but few writers have discovered the deeper roots of the historical transformations that have caused the present situation of environmental degradation. The extremely arid character of the region is a cause of very sensitive natural and social conditions; a very fragile balance that is easily disturbed by any important impact from the outside or innovations from the inside. Only a thorough analysis of both the positive ambitions of the region and their possible negative consequences can provide the necessary understanding of why important development initiatives of the recent past have always produced the negative consequences as they did.

Table of Contents

I. Introduction.

  1. Central Asia as a new region of growing geopolitical interests and arena for intelligent interstate cooperation. Central Asia as a typical reflection of the consumer oriented attitude towards natural resources use must turn itself into an example of survival of society on the basis of a new balance with the environment. The case of Aral Sea Basin has many "brothers in grief" in world history such as the Jordan Valley and Dead Sea in the Middle East, the Lake Mono and the Colorado River in the USA and the Euphrates River in the region of Turkey, Syria and Iraq. Description of comparative natural and social conditions and identification of the different approaches towards development chosen in history. Similarities in problems relate to the arid climate, salinization, demographic pressure, agricultural development and desertification.

II. Historical Perspective

  1. Water, the key to civilization in the history of Central Asia from ancient times to the Russian era and appearance of the first settlements with mountain water supply. Archeological and historical research found many traces of old civilizations in Central Asia and their relation with water use in the IV – II millennium B.C. in Fergana valley. Most settlements were found in small rivers in the upper watersheds of the main rivers with little impact on the hydrological regime. However, in Turkmenistan and in the lowlands of Uzbekistan (ancient Khoresm) developments caused release of significant quantities of water from the Amudarya (Jeihun), Atrec, Murgab, Tedgen (Herirud), Chu and Talas as a result of so called "shifting" irrigation. These were the first cases of human induced water loss, river bed change and disappearance of small rivers and streams.
  2. Water and science history including the works of Al Khoresmy, Ibn Sino and Ulugbek during the XI century – XIV century. Three thousand five hundred years ago human settlements turned into villages, towns and fortresses leading to the need for concentrated agricultural production in naturally well drained lands of easily accessible valleys along rivers. Agriculture production in these oases developed in close connection to trade by the caravans of the Silk Road and the area increasingly became the target of foreign invasions and influence. Some well known intruders are Alexander the Great, Otilla the Hun, Chingiz Khan and Timur sahibcoran who greatly influenced Central Asian civilization. They also brought new science such as astronomy, hydraulics and mathematics by famous scientists including Ibn Sino (Avicenna), Al Khorezmi, the creator of algebra and algorithm and Ulugbek. Old centers of science were Khiva, Bukhara, Samarkand and Merv and have a history going back to the 9th to 14th centuries. This epoch left traces of many old structures such as the water regulators in Zarafshan River, thousands of "kyarises" in the lower mountain valleys, the dams of Khan Bandi in Nurata and "Iski Tuya Tartar" the first canal for water transfer. As a result of this development of water skills and irrigation techniques this period also caused the first notable changes in the hydrography of Central Asia. Zarafshan river for example lost it’s connection with the Amudarya while Bukhara and Samarkand picked up most part of that water for irrigation of up to almost 0,6 million hectare. A similar situation happened in Murgab where the Mrv oasis's cut off, Chu – Talass from the Syrdarya to irrigate some 0,4 million hectare. An event of unprecedented consequence hit the Aral Sea in the 10th and in 13th centuries when the main river bed of the Amudarya was closed off first by Chingizkhan and later by Timur and all its water was diverted to the Caspian Sea through the Uzboy river bed.
  3. The Shariat and Muslim epoch of water management. Water management and irrigated agriculture on an ever larger scale required a strong governance system based on an intensive interrelation between different systems of political power and water users. The irrigation systems had grown to over 4,0 million hectare according to sources, which is half of the present irrigation capacity. The systems had water intakes without dams and were connected to very unstable rivers such as the Amudarya and the Syrdarya, which requires not only rules of interrelation between water providers and water users, but also needs involvement of thousands of persons for maintenance, repair and operation. Muslim water laws and Muslim societal order, customs and culture, reflected in their very interesting "shariat" law that also organizes many positions related to public water management became used and has many features that actually look very similar to present day IWRM (integrated water resource management) practice.

III. Russian expansion and Soviet era in Central Asia – a way to growth and failure.

  1. The Russian invasion (1860 – 1913) kept the principal water management and operation positions and continued the existing methods and mechanisms including the institutional framework with key positions occupied by mirabs and aryk-aksakals (senior elected persons responsible for the water distribution network). At the same time they organized large scale water, agriculture and socio-economic surveys. Water consumption research was done under the leadership of the famous Prof. Kostyakov who introduced the so-called "hydromodule" based rayon (sub region) system that became the framework for the all-Russian school of irrigation.
  2. The interest in development of irrigation as a basis for cotton production for the growing textile industry as a consequence of ongoing urbanization and industrialization led to the appearance of new and large scale projects in the Hunger Steppe, the region of the present Karakum canal and others. These events in themselves did not immediately lead to large scale new irrigation works, but they created the basis for the future large scale development of new lands in the second half of the 20th century. The first experience with collaboration with the local farmers on the new lands was not very successful, but it demonstrated very important principal ideas for integrated development of new lands in the future.
  3. Towards the end and failure of the tsarist governments and the beginning of the era of transformation towards socialism there was no real experience with public water- and irrigation management. Many different institutional approaches were tested such as creation of land and water units, irrigation societies, agriculture communities etc.. This ended with the implementation of two main types of farm organizations which were the state farms for very large scale water and irrigation projects and the cooperative farms for irrigated agriculture, which in reality were similar to state farms and used the same system of planning and accountability.

    Scarce financing resources required new ways of water works development and Uzbekistan initiated the so-called "method of people’s construction", which in principle was a new interpretation of the traditional methods of commonly operated irrigated works known as "khoshar". This approach was used between 1936 and 1941 and put into operation many new major canals first in Fergana Valley, Khorezm, Karakalpakstan, Tashkent Provinces and later on in Kyrgyzstan, Chu valley and others. Although this method can produce good results for irrigation development under oasis conditions and in support of providing increased availability of water on existing irrigated lands, development of complicated new projects required new approaches for which, because of the war, no financial capacity was available.

    One of the achievements of this period was the construction of the first hydropower complexes in Central Asia. The first was Farhad Hydro power station on the Syrdarya River which was to supply power to the industrial capacity that was transferred to Central Asia from the German occupied territories in the West of the country. The Boz-Su cascade of hydro power stations and some small stations in other corners of the region quickly followed. The power stations created a new scientific and applied technology basis for large scale construction of water works in the second half of the 20th century. SANIIRI, Hydroproject, Sredazhyprovodglopok (cotton design institute) and many other scientific and design institutions were involved in this new work and they eventually became the drivers of this new development.
  4. The end of the war and the following industrial growth of the Soviet Union in Central Asia required the combined development of power stations for energy supply and expansion of the agriculture production for mainly raw cotton and for food supply of a growing population. Hydropower stations and regulation dams were built on the Syrdarya in Kayrakum (1956) and Chardara (1966) and in Tahia Tash, (1968) Toktogul and Naryn (1975), Tuyamuyn and Nurek (1970 – 1976) on the Amudarya. Step by step the electric power production capacity of the region increased and provided the opportunity to concentrate on expansion of irrigated lands and increase of the efficiency of existing systems. A special decree of the USSR promoted implementation of large scale irrigated land development including land leveling and drainage works. This work at first did not produce much result, but caused the need to adapt to modern techniques and showed that a change of methods of work was required.

    The years of 1956–1958 became a starting point for implementation of development of desert lands first on a pilot scale, but leading to the Hunger Steppe project with an irrigated area of 350 thousand ha that was completed in 1980. It was done according to a Russian integrated water resources management concept that included not only water and irrigation, but also drainage, roads, electricity and power lines, water supply systems for the rural population, development of villages for state farms and related infrastructure.

    The development obtained intensive support from the Soviet government and more than 2 million hectare of new lands in different parts of Central Asia came under exploitation. The approach led to the creation of a modern irrigation system with a high efficiency of up to 0,75-0,78 reduction on water releases from the river (below 9 thousand m3/ha) and a well-developed network of closely laid subsurface drainage and vertical drainage systems. Meanwhile fast industrial growth supported a fast growing rate of accompanying water works development.

    However this period also created two new problems caused by absence of attention to environmental water requirements which was reflected in the shrinking of the Aral Sea and a worsening of the surface water quality because of increased drainage water return flows to the main river system. The ecological damage as assessed today is estimated to exceed 116 million dollars annually. Another disadvantage that originated in this period is the complete lack of public discussion and public participation in decision making for design and implementation of water and irrigation works, which is a root cause to the present inability of water users to use and maintain their complex and technologically advanced irrigation systems.
  5. The last period of the Soviet era (1983-1991) saw increased attention of society to the environmental problems and for example also triggered a public reaction against the transfer of Siberian rivers water to Central Asia and even against land reclamation works as such. As a result of extended mass media discussions a governmental commission eventually issued a Government decree about the "socio-economic and ecological development of the Aral Sea Basin (1986)" that decided to end the discussion about the Siberian river transfer project; that created two River Basin Management Organizations (BWO Amudarya and BWO Syrdarya) and that started a specific program on improvement of water efficiency in Central Asia. This decision was accompanied by a series of conferences and meetings that included the regional government leadership and often took place in close discussion with regional and local population representatives in order to create a new understanding of water policy issues to a wide array of stakeholders.

IV. Water for Independent States – apple of discord or axe of collaboration –

  1. The collapse of the soviet union created important opportunities for the new states of Central Asia to rehabilitate their sovereignty on the use of their own natural and socio-economic resources. However, with the disappearance of the central structure also came a lack of federal financial support and the loss of previous structures for socio-economic organization and production. First states persisted in giving priority to issues of national sovereignty and finding separate ways for their economic and political future. However, water is different and this nationalistic tendency was quickly rejected by leading water specialists of the region. The ministers of the five Central Asian states, soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union, therefore signed a protocol about the need to save previous methods of water management and later on signed the "agreement about joint management and use of shared water resources" of 18 February, 1992 that was again confirmed by a Decision of the Heads of the five States of 23 March 1993.
  2. Some important institutional arrangements and facilities from the Soviet Era remained to contribute positively to the new situation with the two River Basin Management Organizations (BWO) and the regional Irrigation Research Institute (SANIIRI) providing scientific leadership. These organizations continued work on further development and adaptation of a common framework for water allocation and collaboration between the former partners in science, who were now spread out over five independent states. Negative conditions of this time also have their impact with a lack of finance, a weak technical base for repair and maintenance and the need to coordinate not only water management but also hydro-meteorological activities and trans boundary problems as main issues. This led to the establishment of the Interstate Commission for Water Coordination (ICWC) that quickly started to lead the regional transboundary water management arena.

    Whereas in the previous times hydropower production was operated in service of the regime of irrigation water requirements, step by step hydropower gained priority in the operational regime of water management of the rivers. This development caused intersectoral and interstate conflicts of interest whereas Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan prioritize a guaranteed water availability for irrigation and Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan located in the upper watersheds put emphasis to hydropower. The issue is being solved by introducing a barter system where energy and fuel (gas and oil) are traded against water saved (hydropower production lost) as is reflected in a new agreement between the states involved in 1998. Although this agreement has had a positive impact to the issue at the same time it does not take into account a number of related problems such as environmental requirements, the degree of water availability in the rivers (minimum storage) and the old principle of prioritization of irrigation over power. As a result problems and deviations to the agreed water management regime of the Syrdarya River still occur. Implementation of the agreement is dependent on the actual delivery of oil and gas to Kyrgyzstan by the participating riparian states, which sometimes remains at fault, which in term is leading to unduly releases upstream, which will in turn create water scarcity in the schedule of irrigation water supply during the growing season.

    The national water sector of each country is connected to water as a common resource which does require close and specific coordination and agreement related to institutional, legal, economic and managerial issues. This part of the book will describe the common features and differences in water governance and management of the participant states. A comparative analysis will show how water institutions should adapt to a new market economy practice in Central Asian conditions. Here it is also important to see how the system of interconnection and cooperation between national and regional water basin organizations through the ICWC has contributed to avoid water management conflicts during the last 15 years. The present economic weakness in irrigated agriculture is caused by an array of factors among which irrigation efficiency and agriculture reform are dominant. The states provide no extra financial support for maintenance of on-farm structures and many elements of the former water related industry have stopped their support to repair and maintenance of the water infrastructure. As a result important failures occur such as vertical drains working on 15-20 % capacity and increasing water losses and soil salinity and overall land degradation becoming widespread.

  3. Continuous changes in political relations, economic differences between the states and the geopolitical changes in region have required from ICWC permanent attention and a constant search for concepts and tools for strengthening transboundary collaboration. From the beginning international organizations plaid a role in the development of this cooperation and worth mentioning are the activities of the Aral Sea Basin program 1 and 2 (World Bank, UNDP and others), the activities of EU-TACIS, GEF, CIDA, USAID, NATO SfP, ADB and SDC. All their efforts included some principles of new (western) approaches to water management issues such as development of a regional water strategy, creation of information and monitoring systems, transboundary cooperation, automation of river structures and training. The joint activities of the five states in cooperation with foreign specialists have enhanced the spirit of shared responsibility and ownership of the resources and the system of water management.
  4. One very important element that was introduced into the practice of management of the water bodies of Central Asian recently was the ecological dimension. Under the promotion of both governmental and non governmental organizations and international aid agencies important environmental projects for wetlands restoration on the Amudarya lowlands, rehabilitation of the Syrdarya delta and reforestation of the dry bed of the Aral Sea have been initiated. These projects have brought together new cooperative forces of water, environmental and socio-economic experts from the region who started a permanent dialogue to study and find consensus about integrated solutions to their problems. Similar influences of integration and renewal are brought about by integrated water resources management (IWRM) projects trying to introduce new approaches to irrigated agriculture and water management based on these principles in Central Asia. Early results show a good increase in productivity with rather limited investments from the state.

  5. Although collaboration for planning, annual water allocation and use is stabilizing, some important interstate frictions such as competition between oil and gas rich states of the lowlands and oil-gas poor, but water rich states of the upper watersheds remain. This competition is influenced by the geopolitical position of Central Asia as a meeting point of global interests represented by the USA, Russia, China, Iran and others. Some parties promote a transformation from an agriculture and water based economy to an energy (oil and gas based) market economy which should be at the basis of the hydropower for water barter agreement. However, this may cause considerable failure of irrigated lands productivity in the near future if irrigation water or water required for environmental flows is not available at the right time (creating artificial scarcity). The book will report about this dialogue including results of negotiations now being held under the leadership of ICWC, which is trying to bring this discussion into a framework of international water laws. A major argument for this approach is the complexity of the water system of Central Asia, where countries have completely different positions and interests and there is still disagreement on the guiding principles of ownership and use related to water rights. Only willingness and understanding can solve this problem in peace.

V. Future Perspectives for Water Availability and Use in the Region

  1. The proposition here is that Central Asia in principle has a large water resources and other natural resources potential, but it will face complications in the water situation if shared wisdom and old traditional principles can't win against attempts to defend water sovereignty per state or stakeholder. The outcome will depend on the ability of the states to create a joint movement for water conservation and set adequate targets for water use, introduce regulations for new water infrastructure development and allow a wide involvement of public activity in the water sector, including finance. In addition to this we need to take into account climate change and possible changes of the global economic situation and world (energy) prices. Some attempts to predict the future situation in Central Asia for a number of key sustainable development indicators were made in earlier projects that developed scenarios for the future socio-political and demographic situation. Calculated results of these scenarios estimate that in the case of optimum regional cooperation the region may survive successfully up to 2025 and 2030. Other scenarios which consider a low degree of regional cooperation and low investments in the irrigated agriculture sector will lead to important failures not only in agriculture, but in many associated sectors including the environment, agro-industry and service sectors. Extreme nationalistic scenarios that for example emphasize hydropower development for upstream countries may cause annual net losses for two lowland countries of up to 1 billion USD.
  2. The collaborative, integrated, activities of the states of Central Asia, including Afghanistan, on the basis of an agreed regional strategic plan and including shared financial responsibilities will be the basis for a sustainable use of their shared water resources. The framework of this collaborative action will need the support of international partners and financing organizations where each of them will equally understand the individual interests of the states as well the common interests of the region as shared in the agreements between the states. Broadly based integrated water resources management (IWRM) reflected in National Water Management Plans such as already developed by Kazakhstan are needed in preparation of a common "road map" towards the future. Public participation for water governance in water user associations and overall agriculture and land use reform based on traditional Central Asian principles are needed to shape the institutional water management framework for the future. The development of this typical Central Asia version of IWRM is one of the main challenges facing the region.
  3. The importance of implementation of the new principles of IWRM is demonstrated by the early results of some pilot initiatives. One pilot of 120 thousand ha achieved a permanent reduction of water needs of no less than 10% for 4 years (average water delivery below 8500 m3/ha instead of 10 – 12 thousand m3/ha) and attained an increase of efficiency of 5 – 7 %. This is the result of an intelligent combination of public participation, skills and experience of water and agriculture specialists and implementation of innovations at all technical, institutional and managerial levels. Political support for these new approaches to irrigated agriculture governance and creating the right financial infrastructure are needed to allow these reform measures to take root and grow. Measures for the recovery of the Syrdarya delta in Kazakhstan are a good example of how combined planning of the socio-economic and natural environment system can be transformed into success.
  4. Science, education, innovation and participation are the key contributing factors towards increased water availability in Central Asia. The book will try to demonstrate that the principles of the old laws of Ibn Sino and Al Khoresmi, a great poet and water mirab of the ancient Khan of Navoy still have value for the new generation of scientists and practitioners who should lead the school of water and irrigation of this century. Many new concepts and tools have already been developed by the new generation on the basis of new ways of modeling, information management, hydrology and institutional reform. However, the main idea remains in education, training and promotion of new approaches and new visions that find strong roots in the rural society and at the same time demonstrate a clear understanding of the inability to live the same as before. Take lessons from the connection between real values from the past and real assets of the future is the main line of analysis of the book.

Author Bio(s)

The authors have a long experience in water management in Central Asia and have collaborated for years. They have used a wide range of historical, scientific and practical references and many actual data they have gathered as a result of their years of work.

Victor A. Dukhovny (Uzbekistan) has many years of experience with water in Central Asia and is one of the leading specialists in the development of complex water management and irrigation systems. He was involved with the rehabilitation program of the Hunger and the Karshi Steppe and of the Karakum Canal. At present, he leads the future water development policies plan for the region. Prof. Dukhovny is the director of the Scientific Information Centre of the Interstate Commission for Water Coordination of Central Asia in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.

Joop de Schutter (The Netherlands) has dealt with water development projects in the region and was involved with the integrated management schemes for the Amudarya and Syrdarya deltas as part of the regional Aral Sea Basin management model. He also led the implementation of the Sudoche Wetlands Restoration project. At present, he is the deputy director of the UNESCO-IHE International Institute for Water Education in Delft, the Netherlands.

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