Knowledge Base

Approaches toward improving water cooperation

Repeated declarations by Heads of Central Asian States and Governments of their intention to develop mutually advantageous cooperation in the use and protection of water have not yet become a reality for a number of reasons, including:

  • Temporary economic difficulties encountered by all five countries in their transition to a market economy;
  • A substantial restriction of financial and other measures of public support for the maintenance and development of the water management infrastructure, and the resulting degradation of its technical status;
  • An unbalanced development of economic sectors resulting from the dismantling of the production cooperation structure that existed in the USSR;
  • The patterns and quotas of inter-State water allocation inherited from the USSR period that fail to account for the priorities of socio-economic development and future water requirements in each country;
  • A lack of coordinated economic mechanisms for the rational use of water;
  • A legal basis for cooperation that primarily consists of framework agreements which do not cover the entire range of relevant issues and fail to define detailed procedures for the preparation and adoption of decisions, and joint follow-up on commitments assumed by countries.

The national diagnostic reports and various expert assessments include references to the following fundamental contradictions that hamper development of regional collaboration on water-related issues:

  • Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan believe that the development of their irrigation farming was restricted in the past. Consequently, they intend to insist on higher quotas (abstraction limits) for internal water use. The other countries in the region are interested in preserving the status quo in water resource distribution. Achieving consensus on this issue may be complicated if the stabilization of the political situation in Afghanistan results in an increased demand for water in this country.
  • The countries situated in the water flow formation zone, especially Kyrgyzstan, are interested in increasing the generation of electricity and therefore seek to establish a regime for water releases from their reservoirs that would be optimal in terms of hydropower generation development. Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, for obvious reasons, are interested in an operational regime for reservoirs that would primarily meet the needs of irrigation.
  • Although the countries in the region recognize the norms of international law known as the precautionary and the polluter pays principles, they demonstrate different approaches to their practical application. The downstream countries on inter-State rivers, being potentially aggrieved parties, insist on the unconditional observance of these norms. Upstream countries believe, however, that they run an excessive risk of causing inadvertent damage to their neighbours and are therefore forced to incur disproportionate expenses to prevent possible damage. In this connection, it is proposed not to use the principle of obligatory compensation for damage caused by water pollution unless all the countries concerned agree to cost-sharing in relevant preventive measures.
  • Though official representatives of most countries in the region agree with the need for equitable recoupment of costs for inter-State water management measures, there is no complete list of such measures. Neither is there a regulatory and organizational framework for the operational settlement of unresolved issues, which leads to a certain tension in relations.
  • National legislation in all countries in the region recognize their sovereign rights to the water sources within their territorial boundaries and the water resources contained therein. These provisions conflict to some extent with the norms of international conventions establishing a special status for water resources classified as transboundary rivers or international watercourses . This contradiction may be eliminated only if a special clarifying provision is is formulated and incorporated either in the regional water strategy or in a relevant agreement, because not all the countries intend to accede, for instance, to the Helsinki Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes of 1992.
  • None of the countries in the region gives sufficient attention to environmental issues, including the conservation of rivers and lakes as natural water bodies. Moreover, there is a discrepancy between the priorities of environmental protection activities. For instance, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are more concerned about the situation in the Aral Sea region, whereas Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan seek to attract attention to the problems of glacier conservation and security of rock-dammed mountain lakes, and the environmental sustainability of the water flow formation zone. This substantiates the need for balanced regional cooperation in environmental protection.

As regards the practical activities of such inter-State structures as IFAS, ICWC and BVOs, their capacities are by far not fully used. In particular, ICWC recommendations regarding agreed-upon conditions of water allocation and water releases to the Aral Sea are not always complied with. The potential of the two BVOs as executive inter-State water allocation bodies is restricted because:

  • Part of the inter-State water abstraction facilities, as well as the major hydropower facilities and reservoirs are controlled by national bodies rather than watershed organizations;
  • The watershed organizations do not monitor the amounts and schedules of groundwater abstraction and return flow discharge, or the quality of water resources;
  • Protection zones have not yet been established for inter-State rivers;
  • The sections of the Syrdarya and the Amudarya witin each country’s national borders are under the jurisdiction of respective national bodies, and the mandate of the BVOs to control the situation along these river stretches s is practically not fulfilled;
  • There is no collaboration between the BVOs and the national hydrometeorological services, which adversely affects the precision of water reserve estimates and forecasts;
  • The BVOs and their subsidiary bodies do not have a sufficient technical base for obtaining, processing and transmitting information.

It is currently agreed, at least by Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, that there is a need to preserve the existing inter-State structures that coordinate cooperation on water-related issues, and strengthen their financial, legal and organizational capacities. At the same time, there are different views regarding the development of the organizational forms of long-term cooperation. The following proposals, in particular, should be mentioned:

  • Improvement of national water legislation taking into account norms of international law;
  • Clarification of the legal status of inter-State bodies, specification of their functions and mandates;
  • A step-by-step involvement / of water users associations, as they are being formed, in drawing up decisions on inter-State water-related issues;
  • The establishment of a water and energy consortium as a financial mechanism for strengthening interaction among water-using economic sectors of the countries concerned;
  • The liberalization of national border crossing, customs and other regulations in relation to officials of the above regional bodies;
  • The need to develop information support for the public in the countries of the region on important issues of environment, water conservation, payment for the use of water, emergencies relating to water use, etc.