Water disputes in Central Asia: Rising tension threatens regional stability

Briefing 28-10-2015

After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, water management has caused severe disputes in Central Asia, due to conflicting needs and priorities between the upstream and downstream countries, thus endangering regional stability and security. In terms of distribution of natural resources, the countries in the region are divided into two groups: 'energy-poor but water-rich' upstream countries (Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan) and 'energy-rich but water-poor' downstream countries (Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan). While the first group is in dire need of water for energy, downstream countries need water for agriculture. As a result, natural resources have emerged not as tools for facilitating regional cooperation but as a source of conflict. The dispute over Tajikistan's Rogun Hydropower Plant Project represents a concrete example of the water-energy-food nexus in the region. As tension between energy-deprived Tajikistan and water-starved Uzbekistan grows, water becomes a source of conflict, posing a significant threat to regional stability. Bellicose statements from the leaders of Central Asian states reflect the importance of water-related disputes: Uzbek President Islam Karimov stated that 'water-related problems could spark wars'. Disagreement on water management has prompted initiatives from inside the region and from international actors, and the European Union is no exception. The EU's Central Asia Strategy, identified 'environment and water management' as a priority area. The EU has repeatedly stated that water-related disputes pose a major threat to regional security and stability. Recently, the Council Conclusions of June 2015 re-emphasised the critical importance of the issue. Possible acceleration of tension between the Central Asian states may deteriorate stability and security in the region, which already faces various other threats.