Belt & Road must overcome water disputes in Central Asia

By Zhu Yongbiao Source:Global Times Published: 2017/4/9 21:18:39

Central Asia is strategically important in the development of the Silk Road Economic Belt. The five countries in this area speak highly of and responded actively to the initiative, but their delicate relations may exert negative impact on the initiative. These nations have been mired in age-old rifts and, particularly, around water resources.

The region has been fraught with conflicts, such as those between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, which take the development of hydropower as a national strategy and Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, which relies on irrigation farming. The downstream countries strongly object to the large-scale hydroelectricity projects.

The Central Asian countries have adopted a wide spectrum of measures to control more water resources in order to satisfy the surging need of an expanding population and a growing economy. This has, inevitably, aggravated the prolonged contention over transboundary water resources.

Most of the conflicts were caused by scramble for water resources. Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan witnessed a border conflict last March and a shooting incident occurred along the border between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan in August 2015. Later, in October, then Uzbek president Islam Karimov warned of a water war if Kyrgyzstan continued building hydropower stations on the transboundary river with the support of Russia. It was not the first time that Karimov gave such a warning.

The reason why the water dispute is difficult to resolve is that the differences among the Central Asian nations are hard to reconcile. Loopholes in management are still waiting to be patched. There is also a lack of legal foundation to deal with the strife over water resources. 

In addition, geopolitical discrepancies and intervention from major powers have further complicated the intractable issue. It is projected that the water row will likely continue to impact state-to-state relations for a long time in the future. There is a risk that the frictions may further ferment though the possibility of a war is slim.

China's cooperation with Central Asia, which boasts a special geographical position, is essential for the development of the Silk Road Economic Belt. The coordination among Central Asian nations is also very important. For instance, the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan Railway could not be built without the cooperation between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.

Nonetheless, the wrangle over water resources alongside frequent ethnic conflicts has dampened the enthusiasm of Kyrgyzstan to participate in the construction of the railway. Therefore, promoting a peaceful solution to the conflict will help develop the Silk Road Economic Belt. But China must remain prudent as it also has water disputes with some Central Asian nations.

It should be noted that some Chinese enterprises have already taken part in large-scale hydropower development projects in Central Asia and some others are still in the works. In the past, investment from Chinese enterprises in projects of this kind was once halted due to frictions among Central Asian nations, which led to huge losses.

Russia also terminated some projects in Tajikistan under the pressure of protest from Uzbekistan but elicited discontent from Tajikistan afterwards, making its relations with Central Asian nations increasingly intricate.

Therefore, China should play it safe when investing in the hydropower industry in Central Asia and conduct full risk assessment if it decides to make investment.

Nowadays, more and more people in Central Asia have begun to realize that the water crisis is not of quantity but of allocation. The point does not lie in shortage of the water resources but in how to manage them. Central Asia boasts plenty of water but lacks proper use of it.

China has accumulated abundant experience and mature technology in water resources management and multipurpose utilization. Some of the techniques and ideas, including water-conserving agriculture, small hydropower plants, photovoltaic power generation, can be transferred to Central Asian nations to help alleviate their contention.

Compared with investing in large hydropower development projects, participating in these fields are of more significant value and has less risk.

The author is associate professor with the Institute for Central Asian Studies, Lanzhou University.


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