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Last Updated: Thursday, 19 February, 2004, 01:24 GMT
Central Asia's river rivalry

By Ian MacWilliam
BBC correspondent in Kazakhstan

Villagers living along the Syr Darya river in the Central Asian republic of Kazakhstan have spent the past few weeks worrying about whether their lands and houses are about to be flooded.

The Chardara reservoir on the borders of Kazakhstan and neighbouring Uzbekistan has become dangerously full, nearly reaching its maximum capacity of some 5 billion cubic metres of water.

Chardara reservoir
The rising Chardara reservoir has forced evacuations from the area

More than 2,000 people have already had to be evacuated after their houses were flooded.

Now officials say they are concerned about water levels rising further from the spring thaw.

Ironically, the usual problem along the Syr Darya is not too much water, but too little.

Two great rivers flow through Central Asia - the Syr Darya and the Amu Darya, or Oxus.

Both flow north from the Tien Shan mountains across the steppe to the Aral Sea.

But from the 1960s onward, Moscow built a vast irrigation network across the region to grow cotton.

So much water is now extracted from the rivers that little reaches the Aral Sea, and it has been gradually drying up, causing immense ecological damage.

Centralised management

Tien Shan mountains, south Kazakhstan
Central Asia's two main rivers flow north from the Tien Shan mountains

In Central Asia, water has long been taken for granted. In Soviet days, huge fountains splashing water about in the hot summers were a standard feature of any self-respecting town.

Despite the fact that much of this region is actually desert or arid steppe, for residents of the Soviet Central Asian republics, water appeared to be plentiful and free.

This was possible because nearly all the sizeable rivers in the area were dammed, their water stored in reservoirs to be used for agriculture or hydroelectricity.

In the case of the Syr Darya, which flows through four of the ex-Soviet republics - Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and finally Kazakhstan - its water was destined mainly for agricultural use and the authorities in Moscow carefully regulated the river's flow.

So long as Moscow called the shots, the system worked reasonably well - apart from the slow death of the Aral Sea.

But with the end of centralised management, control of water supplies has become a contentious issue.


The Syr Darya rises in Kyrgyzstan where the Toktogul hydroelectric dam controls its main tributary, the Naryn.

Uzbek President, Islam Karirmov
Islam Karimov has accused Kyrgyzstan of causing the floods in Kazakhstan

This winter, the Kyrgyz authorities have increased the flow of water from Toktogul to produce more electricity, despite interstate agreements that the water should be stored in the winter for use in irrigation in the spring.

In Soviet days, gas from Uzbekistan and coal from Kazakhstan was supplied to keep the Kyrgyz warm in winter.

But today impoverished Kyrgyzstan has difficulty paying for fuel from its neighbours, and the Kyrgyz authorities argue that, in any case, the Uzbeks and Kazakhs pay them too little for the water they supply for irrigation.

The Uzbek President, Islam Karimov, has accused Kyrgyzstan of causing the floods in Kazakhstan by ignoring agreements to store water during the winter.

Uzbekistan, which fancies itself as a regional leader, often takes a pugnacious attitude towards its smaller neighbours.

But the water issue has brought out the rivalries and suspicions which regularly prevent the Central Asian neighbours from cooperating on regional projects.


The fate of the Aral Sea is another such case.

There has been much hand-wringing about the fate of the Aral and the people who live round it, and many calls for international assistance.

But a concerted regional effort to stop the sea's evaporation by reducing water wastage or even reducing irrigation has not yet materialised.

Neighbouring Turkmenistan has even gone ahead with new schemes to irrigate the desert, drawing off even more water from the depleted Amu Darya.

Central Asia has a young and growing population.

As the local economies recover following a decade of post-Soviet decline, demand for water can only increase. In the thirsty lands of Central Asia, control of the precious liquid is likely to become even more contentious.

Central Asian states reach flooding deal
13 Feb 04  |  Asia-Pacific
Kazakh lake 'could dry up'
15 Jan 04  |  Asia-Pacific


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