Ensuring Cooperation for Central Asia’s Water Woes

Syr Darya river in Baikonur 01 scaled

1st Place, High School Essay Contest 2022

On April 28, 2021, border personnel from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan fired on each other, marking the beginning of a border clash that would later kill dozens and displace tens of thousands; the event was most directly sparked by a dispute at a water intake and distribution facility (1). The roots of the conflict stem largely from 1991: the year the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) collapsed (2).

Before its collapse, the USSR wielded considerable administrative might in the water allocation system of Central Asia, which is typically thought of to consist of five countries: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Each region of the USSR had specific roles in the larger union, and Central Asia was delegated the job of agricultural production, and products like cotton became economic boons for the region. Water allocation was regulated in Moscow to ensure the most effective crop growth (3). The collapse of the USSR brought the collapse of a crucial framework for water coordination in Central Asia, creating opportunities for countries to forgo cooperation and instead act in their own self-interests. Since 1991, several multilateral institutions have been created in an attempt to fill the vacuum left by the collapse of the USSR, such as the Interstate Commission for Water Coordination (ICWC), but such agreements lacked real bite in terms of coordinating water administration. This essay introduces a new multilateral organization: the Central Asian Water Cooperation Organization (CAWCO).

The Syr Darya and the Amu Darya are the two rivers that feed the vast majority of Central Asia; their waters largely originate from snowmelt from the Tien Shan, Pamir, and Hindu Kush mountains of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Afghanistan (4). The two upstream countries of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan primarily use water for electricity generation, while the three downstream countries of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan primarily use water for agriculture (5). The USSR maintained a quota system to ensure each country received enough water, and while an attempt was made to keep that system after 1991, efforts collapsed as each country desired more water. While Soviet efforts mitigated tensions over water, mutual distrust soon became unrestrained, leading to dozens of conflicts and disputes in the 21st century (6). The Golovnoi water intake facility, from the April 2021 conflict, splits the Ak-Suu river (a tributary of the Syr Darya) in two; disagreements over control of the facility served as the impetus for the conflict (7). Disputes over water serve as an “impact-magnifier,” inflaming and giving an avenue to express existing tensions over cultures and border demarcation, and raise the probability of larger “water wars (8)”. While the current issue is primarily about access, not scarcity, it is likely to evolve into both because of the effects of global warming (9). Higher air temperatures lead to less snow and more rain, thereby reducing the snowmelt, a crucial water source for Central Asia (10).

The most well-known multilateral institution that has attempted to address the water cooperation gap is the ICWC, but it has achieved little success for several reasons; this essay will isolate three. First, it only focused on water distribution, and not the underlying issues that made water distribution so contentious (11). Considerable amounts of water intended for agricultural use never reach crops and are lost in transport because of poor irrigation infrastructure, effectively simultaneously decreasing supply and increasing demand. Second, Afghanistan was excluded from the multilateral dialogue. After Tajikistan, Afghanistan is the second largest contributor to the Amu Darya, and the river is largely used for agriculture in the country (12). Because of Afghanistan’s growing population and demand for water, future organizations must include it. Third, the ICWC failed to provide incentives for cooperation. Without the USSR looming over them, it was expected that the five countries would maximize their own self-interest, and the ICWC failed to properly induce collective action. The CAWCO’s overall function would be to improve on past multilateral organizations like the ICWC, a positive start in need of refinement.

The CAWCO would have six members: the five Central Asian countries and Afghanistan; it should also work closely with the World Bank (WB). The WB has expressed willingness to help with the Central Asian water crisis, can provide critical funding and also advise the countries on cooperative policy. The CAWCO’s primary goal should be on modernizing infrastructure. Through required financial contributions from members, the CAWCO can successfully target sites that take the largest toll on water to minimize water loss. The WB has already worked extensively with Uzbekistan in this sector; the Bukhara and Samarkand Water Supply Project beginning in 2002 was able to increase reliable water access to 98% of the population in the surrounding regions (13). By improving infrastructure, like the deficient irrigation and supply systems, the CAWCO can essentially increase supply, driving down the divisive nature of water-sharing discussions. Infrastructure can also help diversify the energy sources of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. These two countries generate large quantities of electricity from hydroelectric power, but infrastructure can help the two countries harness other energy sources, such as solar, decreasing the amount of water diverted for hydroelectric power (14). The CAWCO should focus on projects that incentivize all member countries; a lack of incentives leads to a lack of cooperation (see: the ICWC), and this can be aided with the creation of a council and a voting system to foster collaboration. A lack of cooperation is the biggest barrier to success; even if the infrastructure fails to reach its goals, cooperation can at least ensure decreased conflicts through an emphasis on cross-border dialogue.

The CAWCO will face considerable challenges: delayed efforts to slow global warming, the August 2021 Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, and longstanding tensions between the Central Asian countries (15). However, any efforts to solve the region’s water crisis are better than none. Otherwise, the water crisis will continue to put millions at risk of conflicts and shortages that will only get worse over the coming decades – it’s “try or die” for Central Asia to find a solution.


1. The High Asia, “Kyrgyz-Tajik conflict: solving water puzzle key to preventing fresh fighting,” The High Asia Herald, May 23, 2021, https://thehighasia.com/kyrgyzstan-tajikistan-border-clashes/

2. Office of the Historian, “The Collapse of the Soviet Union,” Foreign Service Institute, United States of American Department of State, https://history.state.gov/milestones/1989-1992/collapse-soviet-union

3 Kocak, Konur Alp, “Water disputes in Central Asia,” European Parliamentary Research Service, October, 2015, https://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/BRIE/2015/571303/EPRS_BRI(2015)571303_E N.pdf

4 Alford, Donald; Kamp, Ulrich; Pan, Caleb; “The Role of Glaciers in the Hydrologic Regime of the Amu Darya and Syr Darya Basins,” World Bank, May 4, 2015, https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/handle/10986/24082

5 See footnote 3

6 See footnote 3

7. Imanaliyeva, Ayzirek; Ibragimova, Kamila; Leonard, Peter; “Tempers flaring as Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan come to deadly blows,” Eurasianet, April 29, 2021, https://eurasianet.org/tempers-flaring-as-kyrgyzstan-tajikistan-come-to-deadly-blows 

8. Wendle, John, “When Climate Change Starts Wars,” NautilusThink, February 9, 2017, https://nautil.us/when-climate-change-starts-wars-rp-7579/

9. Rheinbay, Janna; Mayer, Sebastian; Wesch, Stefanie; Vinke, Kira; “A Threat to Regional Stability: Water and Conflict in Central Asia,” PeaceLab from the Global Public Policy Institute, April 20, 2021, https://peacelab.blog/2021/04/a-threat-to-regional-stability-water-and-conflict-in-central-asia

10. Fecht, Sarah, “How Climate Change Impacts Our Water,” Columbia Climate School, September 23, 2019, https://news.climate.columbia.edu/2019/09/23/climate-change-impacts-water/ 

11. International Crisis Group, “Central Asia: Water and Conflict,” May 30, 2002, https://www.crisisgroup.org/europe-central-asia/central-asia/uzbekistan/central-asia-water-and-conflict

12. Muckenhuber, David, “Breaking the Dam: Water Politics in Central Asia,” The Global Observatory, February 14, 2013, https://theglobalobservatory.org/2013/02/breaking-the-dam-water-politics-in-central-asia/

13. World Bank, “World Bank Group – Uzbekistan Partnership: Country Program Snapshot,” World Bank Group, April 2015, https://www.worldbank.org/content/dam/Worldbank/document/Uzbekistan-Snapshot.pdf 

14. See footnote 9

15.  Mellen, Ruby; Ledur, Julia; “Afghanistan faces widespread hunger amid worsening humanitarian crisis,” The Washington Post, January 25, 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/01/24/afghanistan-humanitarian-crisis-hunger/