Knowledge Base

Interstate water allocation issues

The prospects of social and economic development of all the Central Asian countries are largely dependent on the availability of water resources. The main sources of water in the region are the Amudarya and Syrdarya with their tributaries, which flow through the territory of several countries and are therefore of interstate significance.

In recent years, there has been growing concern in the region about being able to meet long-term water requirements. Though the statistics of the past decade indicate a temporary reduction in annual water consumption and a relative improvement of water quality, these trends are of a short-term nature. At the same time, such factors as the growth of population, the continuing degradation of the water management infrastructure, the inadequate measures of State supervision over water management and environmental protection, as well as disregard for water-saving requirements, should inevitably result in a growing shortage of water resources.

The changed political, social and economic conditions coupled with unfavourable forecasts of long-term water supply have made it necessary for the Central Asian countries to enhance efforts to achieve an efficient, environmentally safe water use based on new, mutually agreed principles, procedures and terms of water distribution.

The Central Asian countries declared their commitment to the goal of developing inter-State cooperation on water issues at the international conference in Nukus on 20 September 1995. The Heads of the five Central Asian States confirmed in the Nukus Declaration their «commitments to full cooperation at the regional level based on mutual respect, good-neighbourly relations and determination» for the sake of overcoming the consequences of the environmental crisis in the Aral Sea basin and its impact on nature and people. The Bishkek Declaration by the Heads of the Central Asian countries of 6 May 1996 recognized that it was necessary to accelerate the development of a new water allocation strategy and economic methods of management in water and energy resource use.

Reaching agreement about the principles and procedures of water distribution, and measures to optimize the regimes in the use of inter-State water bodies to satisfy the requirements of all sectors with due regard for environmental interests is thus regarded today as the most essential task.

The arrangement for operation and interaction of the fuel and energy and water management infrastructure of all the Central Asian countries that remained in effect until recently requires fundamental amendments to adapt it to the current circumstances. The plan for diversion to the region of part of the Siberian river flow that was developed back in the 1980s and was supposed to solve the problem of the growing water shortage has not been implemented. The strained inter-State relations and complicated joint settlements, the introduction of national currencies, the growing costs of fuel and energy resources shifted the emphasis of the operational regime of the reservoirs in the upper reaches of the Syrdarya and Amudarya from irrigation to energy generation. This, in turn, led to serious complications in the lower reaches both in winter and in summer.

Despite the declared need to reach agreement on water allocation, the positions of countries quite often remain unchanged. While the countries situated in the river flow formation zone insist on revising the abstraction limits (quotas) for water use previously established by the USSR Government, the downstream countries try to preserve the status quo and prevent the redistribution of water resources that has actually already taken place. Being interested in increasing water use for hydropower generation, the upstream countries, especially Kyrgyzstan, insist on their right to arrange the water release regime accordingly and demand compensation from the downstream countries for the water resources provided for irrigation.

The current model of using the water and energy resources in the Syrdarya basin based on the 1998 agreement has serious drawbacks (the lack of mechanisms for enforcing unconditional implementation of commitments, complicated joint settlements, etc.) and offers no guarantees of long-term water supply. The cooperation on water and energy use in the Syrdarya basin is based on short-term agreements that primarily take into account the interests of energy resource exchange and do not address the transition to a balanced long-term use of water resources based on the ecosystem approach.

In these conditions, the implementation of commitments assumed by the parties to intergovernmental agreements and the transition to a sustainable long-term legislative regulation of the use of water resources, in particular, the Naryn reservoir cascade, take on special significance.

The following measures are proposed to optimize the water allocation mechanism in the current inter-State relations:

  • The signing of an agreement by all the countries on the integrated use of river water resources and the adoption of relevant regulations on water allocation and operational management of water use;
  • The gradual transition at the watershed and subregional levels within each country to an integrated (complex) method of water use management focused on equal rights of participation for all sectors, local bodies and representatives of water users in this management;
  • The establishment of a water and energy consortium as a financial mechanism regulating the use of the available fuel, electricity and water resources in closest approximation to a schedule of water use agreed upon by the countries. This will be possible if the countries determine precisely who will represent their interests in the consortium and draw up coordinated rules for setting price and for sharing expenditures and profits that would be equally beneficial for all the participants in the consortium;
  • The orientation of all the countries on measures for water conservation corresponding to modern technically and economically achievable levels of water use;
  • The promotion of public awareness and public involvement in support of measures that concern the interests of the entire population of the region.

The following plan is proposed for activities in water distribution:

  • The definition of a common basis for calculating water resources subjected to quotas and water demand over a reasonably long period;
  • The development of principles and criteria for inter-State water allocation;
  • The allocation of water quotas (abstraction limits) to each country;
  • The establishment of abstraction and water supply schedules;
  • The establishment of a follow-up mechanism to control compliance with the water supply schedules;
  • The regulation of the legal, organizational and economic procedures for inter-State water distribution.

Reaching a water allocation agreement is an objective that calls for gradual integrated decisions taking into account not only environmental and socio-economic changes taking place in the countries, but also the need to establish unified standards for water use and water conservation for each country, including water-saving requirements.

The main measures for water conservation in the region specified in the guidelines for all the national water strategies developed in 1995-1996 are as follows:

  • Introduction of water charges in irrigation farming and other economic sectors through the establishment of differentiated tariffs, as well as penalties for water consumed in excess of the established norms;
  • Elaboration of common technical approaches to stringent regulation of water consumption based on specified norms;
  • Establishment of a system of pilot water-saving projects as primary demonstration sites of water use;
  • Introduction of irrigation rotation and other organizational measures aimed at the prevention of water losses in the field and non-productive water use;
  • Introduction of efficient irrigation techniques and technologies;
  • Establishment of waterproof lining in canals;
  • Complex reconstruction and modernization of water management systems.

All countries basically support the implementation of water-saving measures in the region based on cooperation and concerted actions. In this connection, in particular, it is proposed to set up watershed committees with the authority to regulate water use and water conservation, primarily in agriculture.

Simultaneously, complaints are made by all sides about the inefficient water use by the other countries, which hampers agreement on inter-State water distribution.

In these circumstances it is clear that the issue of water allocation cannot be addressed without each country assuming responsibility for an efficient water use by the economic sectors in its territory through the introduction of water-saving technologies.