Maria Merkulova's Blog

Water in Central Asia: Rogun and Kambarata-1

April 11, 2013


There are three legislative mechanisms of water resources regulation in Central Asia. First, there is an international law - documents made by Interstate Commission for Water Coordination of Central Asia[1], declarations made by all Central Asian states and bilateral agreements on use of particular rivers[2]. Second, there are national water laws and regulations, described in Water Codes. Third, Central Asian presidents often use presidential decrees as a method of governing and to regulate water issues accordingly. The legal framework, surrounding transboundary waters of Central Asia is broad; the only thing that lies in the basis of all those laws and regulations is that the water must be used in advantage of all countries in the region, everyone should benefit and no one - suffer.

As we can see from dozens of recent publications the situation around water resources is tense and potentially may cause a serious conflict. If I may say, it’s already a conflict fluctuating from “latent” to “emergence” stage. We heard much on ambitious projects of new hydropower plants (HPP’s) in Rogun (Tajikistan) and  Kambarata (Kyrgyzstan) and how those projects may affect the downstream countries, mainly Uzbekistan, as his concern is most vocal. The logic behind Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan desire to build huge HPP’s is simple - this countries lack energy resources to make electricity and deliver it to their own people. The Soviet system of redistribution and cooperation, the concept very popular in so called “economic geography” which were teached in Soviet schools, was designed so upstream territories provided water for downstream, and downstream - energy resources for upstream. After the Soviet Union collapsed, the market made energy resources too expensive to buy for poor countries like Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, so they found a way out of this - they want to make electricity from what they think they have a lot - from water. In addition, upstream countries not only want to produce electricity, they also want ot sell it, possibly to Afghanistan.

What is unclear in this discourse around HPPs projects is that Uzbekistan, the main adversary of this idea, is much more concerned about Rogun, than about Kambarata. If you simply compare the number of articles on Uzbekistan’s reaction to both of this projects, you’ll find out, that Rogun is almost 3 times more mentioned in a context of Uzbekistan’s discontent than Kambarata. Why is that so? The Rogun dam project have been under discussions longer than Kambarata-1 (which have been brought into broad discussion in 2012). Unfortunately this doesn’t explain why official rhetorics on Kambarata is less aggressive than on Rogun.

Lets take a look at some factors:

Kambarata-1 project seems to make the same impact on Uzbekistan as Rogun. It’s supposed to be located on the river Naryn, which merges with Kara Darya river to form Syr Darya river, above the Toktogul reservoir. This location means that no matter what the impacts of the dam on the stream is - there is still Toktogul reservoir which is used to regulate water level for the downstream countries[3]. Rogun HPP is planned to be set on the river Vaksh also above Nurek reservoir - this makes Rogun and Kambarata-1 project look really similar. 


Kambarata-1 project had no other expertise other than old Soviet[4] one. The problem with Soviet expertise is not that it’s wrong in terms of engineering or safety of water resources. The real idea of why Kambarata project need reassessment is because the climate in the region was changing since 60-s - it’s no longer up to date with the current conditions.

This is in case of Soviet expertise really existed[5]. Soviet system was state-controlled, thus some projects were really created, transformed and adjusted in the time of building, as soon as Kambarata-1 have not been built - there may not be any proper expertise. Though, it’s doubtful that any assessment  can prove anything to Uzbekistan, or can be considered as a proof that the project will not bring any harm. We can see now, on the example of Rogun, that even WorldBank assessment need to be revised, and experts are not sure, to what extent this expertise is biased. However, the Kambarata-1 project  will be reexamined as Russia and Uzbekistan agreed on this in 2012[6].

Kambarata project seems more credible, especially after Russia declared that it is going to participate in it. Rogun still doesn’t have any significant foreign investor and Tajikistan doesn’t have money to built it by itself. Russia also may become a potential investor in Rogun project - the energy sector in Russia predicts the fall in profits due to shale boom, so the possibility of taking part in Central Asian HPP projects rises.

Let’s sum up what we have: Kambarata-1 HPP is more likely to be build in Central Asia than Rogun - the former has investor (only one, but still), but is not significantly different from Rogun. However, it’s perceived as a less threatening than Rogun by Uzbekistan - the main opponent of the large HPPs in upstream countries. Uzbekistan’s different reaction on two projects can be explained by the following: Kambarata-1 project is much more negotiable. Participation of Russia in it is very important, because of Russia’s strong, though deteriorating, influence in the region  - it can bring Central Asian leaders to some dialog. For Uzbekistan being included in discussion and see that his request for expertise is noticed means that he’s interest are taken into account, and this understanding is crucial for the idea of Uzbekistan as a regional leader that Karimov propagates.

The problem of Central Asian transboundary waters, however, is not in HPPs - it’s ineffective use of rich water resources - the irrigation that dries Aral Sea, and loses nearly 20% of water due to evaporation in open channels. Combined with climate change, melting of glaciers, changing of temperatures in mountains and valleys, and growing population, it can lead Central Asia to a situation, when there is not enough water for people to drink. If regional leaders want to be prepared for the future, they need less to argue and more to cooperate.



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