Water in Central Asia: An increasingly scarce resource

12-09-2018

While it is rich in fossil fuels and minerals, Central Asia is poor in water. However, water plays a key role in the economies of the five Central Asian countries. In mountainous Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, hydroelectricity is already a vital energy resource; new dams could also make it a major export revenue earner. Downstream, river water irrigates the cotton fields of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Heavy water use, particularly in agriculture, is putting water supplies under pressure. Central Asian countries have to share limited resources fairly, while balancing the needs of upstream hydroelectricity generation and downstream agriculture. For this reason, cooperation is vital. However, competition for water has often been a source of tensions, particularly between Uzbekistan and its upstream neighbours. The situation has improved recently, now that Uzbekistan's new president has taken a more constructive approach to resolving these regional water-related problems. Water use also has many environmental implications. Soviet engineers succeeded in turning deserts into fertile farmland, but at the expense of the Aral Sea, a formerly huge inland lake that has all but dried up. Intensive agriculture is also polluting the region's rivers and soils. Leaky irrigation infrastructure and unsustainable greening projects are wasting huge amounts of water. In future, more efficient water use and closer cooperation will become increasingly necessary, as population growth and climate change pile pressure on the region's scarce water resources. The EU has made water one of the main priorities of its development aid for the region. Among other things, EU funding supports regional cooperation and improvements to water infrastructure.

While it is rich in fossil fuels and minerals, Central Asia is poor in water. However, water plays a key role in the economies of the five Central Asian countries. In mountainous Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, hydroelectricity is already a vital energy resource; new dams could also make it a major export revenue earner. Downstream, river water irrigates the cotton fields of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Heavy water use, particularly in agriculture, is putting water supplies under pressure. Central Asian countries have to share limited resources fairly, while balancing the needs of upstream hydroelectricity generation and downstream agriculture. For this reason, cooperation is vital. However, competition for water has often been a source of tensions, particularly between Uzbekistan and its upstream neighbours. The situation has improved recently, now that Uzbekistan's new president has taken a more constructive approach to resolving these regional water-related problems. Water use also has many environmental implications. Soviet engineers succeeded in turning deserts into fertile farmland, but at the expense of the Aral Sea, a formerly huge inland lake that has all but dried up. Intensive agriculture is also polluting the region's rivers and soils. Leaky irrigation infrastructure and unsustainable greening projects are wasting huge amounts of water. In future, more efficient water use and closer cooperation will become increasingly necessary, as population growth and climate change pile pressure on the region's scarce water resources. The EU has made water one of the main priorities of its development aid for the region. Among other things, EU funding supports regional cooperation and improvements to water infrastructure.