Water, Conflict, and Cooperation in Central Asia: The Role of International Law and Diplomacy
56 Pages Posted: 31 Mar 2018 Last revised: 31 Oct 2018
Date Written: May 26, 2017
In the volatile region of Central Asia located between Russia and China and home to the environmentally devastated Aral Sea, water conflict remains an ever-present threat. Although actual war between nations is unlikely, conflict over water often manifests as local skirmishes between different ethnic groups, especially in the densely populated region of Ferghana Valley straddling the borders of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. In this analysis, the underlying causes of this conflict and the potential for cooperation are analyzed using the Water Diplomacy Framework and the United Nations Watercourses Convention, which codifies the key principles of international water law.
In the Syr Darya river basin, the key treaties that govern water management do not provide the flexibility needed to promote a mutually beneficial approach to water management. One treaty effectively locks in Soviet-era allocations and is no longer perceived as equitable and reasonable by all riparian countries. Another treaty attempts to recreate a once beneficial water-energy exchange, but its success has been hindered by the treaty language. Although a structure for transnational water cooperation exists in theory, mistrust among the riparian nations prevents them from implementing an effective collaborative adaptive management strategy. This mistrust is fueled by local conflict over water between farmers in Ferghana Valley because the tributaries and irrigation channels of the Syr Darya that were once part of a unified Soviet system now cross national borders. Poorly demarcated boundaries, challenges of maintaining cross-border infrastructure, increased pressure on the land, and the limited authority of local officials are among the key underlying causes.
Central Asia is not a water-scarce region but poor governance and a lack of cooperation have created a situation of scarcity. The path forward requires that the riparian nations on the Syr Darya learn to trust one another and embrace a mutually beneficial approach to water management.
Keywords: international law, water diplomacy, Central Asia, Ferghana Valley, Aral Sea, Syr Darya River
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