Observations of an ex pat – Water Fights

One of this week’s lesser-reported clashes was over water rights between the two impoverished Central Asian republics of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. It deserved more attention. Central Asia lies at the heart of the Eurasian land mass. The headwaters of its rivers provide water to half of the world’s population. But climate change and the consequences of the break-up of the Soviet Union are destabilising this strategic, and too often ignored part of the world.

or centuries the five stans (as they are often called) were a prosperous key trading link in the Silk Road connecting China and Europe. The ancient city of Merv in Turkmenistan was the world’s largest in the 12th century. It is now an abandoned ruin. Between 1861 and 1885 the five stans were absorbed by the Russian Empire. They tried to break away after the collapse of the Tsar, but were reconquered by the Bolsheviks in 1925 and fell behind the Iron Curtain and out of international politics for the next 66 years.

There were good and bad elements to Soviet rule. One of the good ones was that the Soviets stablished a trans-stan barter system that prevented the five states from squabbling over water. Eighty percent of the region’s waters originate in in the mountainous regions of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The other countries are mostly desert and rely on water from the Syr Darya and Amu Darya Rivers to maintain their agricultural industries.

The desert countries, however, are rich in gas and oil. So, Moscow devised a system whereby the water-rich mountainous stans provided the desert stans with water during the spring and summer and the desert stans provided cheap fossil fuel energy to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to prevent them from freezing in the winter.

The barter system lasted for a few years after 1991 and then fell apart as the energy rich stans discovered that they could earn more money selling their gas and oil to foreign buyers. The water-rich stans were forced to resort to hydro-electricity to replace energy supplies from their neighbours. This reduced the flow of water to Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan with the inevitable impact on their farming communities.

Climate change is further exacerbating the problem. Most of the water feeding the mountainous rivers originates as melt water from snow, permafrost and glaciers. Over the past 50 years the glaciers in the Tien Shan and Pamir Mountains have been reduced by 30 percent. A further third is expected to disappear by 2050. In the short term this creates a flooding problem, but in the medium to short term there is the greater danger of long-term Central Asian drought and desertification.

This would inevitably lead to increased political instability in an area bordering unstable Afghanistan and creating headaches for China, Russia, Pakistan and India. It is unsurprising that Central Asian universities have established courses in water diplomacy.

It is not only water for the Central Asian republics that are impacted by climate change. The glaciers of the Himalayas and Hindu Kush feed the Indus, Ganges, Mekong, Yangtze, Yellow, Brahmaputra and Irrawaddy Rivers.

The upper reaches of these rivers provide opportunities for hydro-electricity, especially in China which is under increasing international pressure to replace its polluting coal-fired power plants with green technology. Beijing has built 11 dams along the Mekong River and has plans for many more. The Mekong is the main water resource for Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam and the reduced water flow is having an impact on the farming and fishing communities in those countries.

Water fights are occurring in other parts of the world. Ethiopia is putting the finishing touches on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (aka GERD) which will dam the upper reaches of the Nile at the expense of downstream Egypt and Sudan. Cairo has threatened war and Ethiopia has banned flights over the dam construction site.

Syria and Iraq have been in dispute for years with Turkey over its damming of the headwaters of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in the Armenian highlands of Northeast Turkey. So far the Turks have built 22 dams for hydroelectricity and irrigation purposes. Their impact on downstream farming communities is said to have contributed to instability in Syria and Iraq.

In Colombia water shortages caused by climate change pushed the Colombian government in 2000 to privatise drinking water in Cochabamba. The result was violent protests which escalated into the “Water War of Cochabamba” and nine deaths. The water was quickly renationalised but the basic problem of shortages is worsening.

To conclude this bleak scenario on an upbeat note, I should note the Indus Water Treaty between India and Pakistan. Within months of partition, India’s East Punjab had cut access to water for Pakistan’s West Punjab and the two countries were on the verge of war. It was narrowly averted and the two countries—with the help of the World Bank—took 12 years to reach an agreement on sharing the river’s resources. It has held firm ever since. If the two arch-rivals of the sub- continent can establish a working agreement on sharing water resources than surely there is hope for diplomatic solutions elsewhere in the world.

* American expat journalist Tom Arms is LDV's foreign affairs editor, author of the forthcoming book “America: Made in Britain” and Campaigns Chair for Wandsworth Lib Dems

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8 Comments

  • John Roffey 8th May '21 - 12:46pm

    An important well crafted article, but it seems that the Climate Crisis is not of great concern to those who comment on LDV.

    There seems to be a recognition that the pandemic has impacted on politics both in the UK and globally. However, this is will be relatively insignificant when compared to that of climate change.

    Boris Johnson is likely to strengthen his popularity even further in November when he hosts COP26. This will highlight the threats and he will commit the UK to almost impossible targets for the reduction in burning fossil fuels [which is far better than the reverse].

    These will be close to impossible for future PM’s to change before 2035 without a major loss of face for the nation – although at present it seems that he may well still be in power at that time!

  • @John Roffey. Writing about foreign affairs is a bit like being a Lib Dem– a constant uphill struggle. But I believe it is important to keep moving forward on both counts.

  • John Roffey 8th May '21 - 4:41pm

    Yes, I agree Tom.

    There does seem to be a great desire to reminisce by those who post here – rather than looking forward.

    In truth, past achievements mean nothing – it is only the future that counts – particularly now with the threat of the climate crisis.

    The UK needs a sizeable third national party to maintain a balance between the two main parties – if good governance is to be provided – which the Lib/Dems are presently the most able to become. However, this vacuum will be filled by another – if the Lib/Dems do not seize their opportunity.

    To achieve this – the courage to honestly face the challenges that are ahead – is an absolute necessity.

  • Tom,

    you write of the Russian conquest of Central Asia in the 19th century. Interestingly, there was a book published on the subject just last year by Dr Alexander Morrison https://global.history.ox.ac.uk/article/new-publication-russian-conquest-central-asia-alexander-morrison#/
    Water rights do appear to be rising up the agenda in the 21st century as climate change threatens populations around the world. In the USA, it has been an ongoing issue in the American Southwest. In Washington, D.C., the R Street Institute and the Property and Environment Research Center (PERC) write “Although water rights have primarily been a concern for western and southwestern states so far, climate change means that water rights are an issue the entire country should look at. Rising temperatures are going to affect all parts of the United States, so it is a national issue. However, there are large differences between how the eastern and western parts of the country handle the legal rules regarding water. Eastern states tend to be a lot wetter than in the west and therefore have much looser rules around using water. Since the situation in a lot of the west is already dire, it’s more important to get things right there.”
    “The government cannot create more water, nor can it change the amount of natural rainfall states receive. Even so, responsible management of water rights can help to balance the needs of a variety of stakeholders, including between different types of agriculture. These changes are less likely to occur under the current system, though, since the water rights system allows large amounts of water to flow towards economically marginal uses.”

  • John Roffey is quite right, I consider, about past achievements meaning nothing. The disappearance of Labour’s Red Wall is not at all surprising; it was not years old, but Generations and Industries, old and ‘spent’. What these islands need must be shaped by the coming generations, with their eyes on national and international ‘fairness’ as regards climate and other resources, and their distribution at the individual and international levels. So I believe we should be seeking closer collaboration with the Green Party, and concentrating on getting the younger generations to recognise the merits — the imperatives — of a few sets of easy initials: PR, UBI, and MMT — In that order, and driven by younger candidates with shorter memories and longer foresight, and no historical blinkers. We must Guide Things Forward, not take back control of nostalgia.

  • John Roffey 9th May '21 - 8:33pm

    Roger Lake: I should have been more precise with my last post. I was referring to the Greens when I wrote ‘this vacuum will be filled by another [party].

    This has been confirmed as their ambition in today’s Guardian:

    Surging Greens pitch to replace Lib Dems as England’s third party

    Strong performance in Bristol and nationwide council seat gains raise hope of general election success.

    The co-leader of the Green party has said voters have finally come to accept his party as a credible electoral force as he marked gains from both Labour and the Conservatives in local elections.

    “We’re moving from being the biggest small party to being one of the big parties,” he said. “We’ve been polling ahead of the Lib Dems and we’ve seen in this election that there are no no-go areas for the Greens.”

    https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2021/may/09/surging-greens-pitch-to-replace-lib-dems-as-uks-third-party

  • Joe Bourke 8th May ’21 – 6:07pm:
    Water rights do appear to be rising up the agenda in the 21st century as climate change threatens populations around the world. In the USA, it has been an ongoing issue in the American Southwest.

    As in many other areas, climate change is being used as an excuse to cover for a lack of investment to meet the needs of a growing population.

    ‘Just the Facts About California’s New Household Water Rationing Law’:
    https://californiaglobe.com/section-2/just-the-facts-about-californias-new-household-water-rationing-law/

    In water year 2019, which spanned from Oct. 1, 2018 to Sept. 30, 2019, an amount of water equal to a year’s supply for 275 million people flowed under the Golden Gate Bridge and out to the Pacific Ocean. Rather than acting to build new, major, reservoir storage to capture all we can when Mother Nature brings us bountiful water for free, California continuously obstructs, and has even used the courts to block putting dam shovels in the ground. In fact, lawmakers recently enacted their own expensive and ineffective solution instead.

  • What intrigues me is in this modern age why desalination of sea water using renewable energy has not become feasible thus reducing the role of fresh water in international affairs.

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