In recent years, there have been a lot of controversies on climate change on the planet. Environmentalists have raised the alarm about the rise in the Earth’s average annual temperature and tried to link this to the amount of anthropogenic emissions into the atmosphere. But despite the disagreement in determining the causes, the effects are indisputable: melting glaciers, changes in precipitation, temperature anomalies, and natural disasters.
It is known that Central Asia is a water-scarce region and therefore it is most vulnerable to global warming. The severity of the situation in the region is evidenced by the fact that for the first time in history a large-scale environmental disaster occurred in the eyes of one generation – the whole Aral Sea disappeared. If in 1960 its area was 66 thousand square kilometers, and its depth was 54 meters, so far its area has decreased by 93 percent, and in its place a lifeless sandy-saline desert was formed. The winds blow salt and poisonous substances, formerly fertilizers from the fields, from the dried seabed into the air and spread them over hundreds of kilometers around.
What are the peculiarities of such natural and climatic conditions in Central Asia? Deserts, semi-deserts and steppes occupy more than 70 percent of the territory of the region, which indicates its lack of moisture. The main sources of water resources of Central Asia are concentrated in the Pamir and Tien Shan mountain systems. At the same time, the water resources are unevenly distributed. Thus, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan belong to the downstream countries with predominantly irrigated agriculture, while high-mountain Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are located in the zone of water flow formation, which they use mainly for hydropower generation. At the same time, the latter are interested in maximum water discharge in energy-deficient winter time, and the downstream countries need maximum water inflow in summer to irrigate lands. Hence the interstate frictions due to water use problems and different interests of the parties.
The two main rivers in the Aral Sea basin, the Amu Darya and Syr Darya, are transboundary waterways that are the main sources of water for the countries of the region. Thus, the total annual water flow of the Amu Darya is 64 cubic kilometers, of which Tajikistan takes 15 percent, Turkmenistan – 45 percent, and Uzbekistan is left with about 40 percent. As an example of shortsightedness and failure to calculate environmental consequences, the 1,400-kilometer Karakum Canal in Turkmenistan, built during the Soviet era, takes about half of the river’s water flow annually, which, according to environmentalists, is one of the main reasons for the rapid death of the Aral Sea. The implementation of Kabul’s plans for land reclamation in northern Afghanistan, which may require about 7 to 10 percent of the river’s water flow, may also have a significant impact on the reduction of the Amu Darya flow.
The annual water flow of the second largest river in Central Asia, the Syr Darya, is 80 cubic kilometers, of which Uzbekistan receives 51 percent, Kazakhstan 42 percent and Tajikistan 7 percent.
According to Kazakh environmentalists, a difficult water and environmental situation is in the eastern part of Kazakhstan, where the two main rivers Irtysh and Ili, which sources are formed on the territory of China, flow. For example, the annual water flow of the Irtysh is about 9 cubic kilometers, of which 1.5 cubic kilometers is consumed by China. As part of the large-scale agricultural development of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region planned by Beijing, the Chinese have built the Irtysh-Karamai canal, which may in the near future lead to a reduction in the flow of the Irtysh to 4-5 cubic kilometers per year. This will have a negative impact on the lives of 2.5 million people living in the Kazakhstan part of the Irtysh basin, will lead to the death of fishing farms, will cause huge damage to agriculture and cattle breeding.
The implementation of China’s plans to increase water withdrawal from the upper reaches of the Ili River for irrigation of the arid areas of XUAR has led to a decrease in the water level of Lake Balkhash. For the last 50 years the lake area has already been reduced by 2 thousand square kilometers, and the further reduction of the water inflow, according to the Kazakh ecologists, can lead to the disappearance of the lake and the repetition of the Aral tragedy. All attempts of Kazakhstan and China to reach a full-fledged agreement on effective and equitable distribution of water resources of the two transboundary rivers have not yet yielded results.
According to UN FAO estimates, most of the agricultural land in the region requires irrigation, especially wet crops such as cotton and rice. Consuming more than half of all used water resources of the region, agriculture remains the main “wasteful” consumer. Thus, losses of irrigation water for filtration and evaporation are enormous, and the deterioration of irrigation systems has reached a critical level. Canals of irrigation systems are not concreted and are mostly destroyed. Water losses in these conditions reach 50-70 percent of water volume. As for land reclamation, it is conducted in the countries of the region using old-fashioned methods, the Soviet methods. Instead of modern drip irrigation, overall irrigation is used there. As a result, for each liter of precious fresh water required for irrigation, 110 liters are wasted. For example, Turkmenistan wastes more water per year than the whole Germany, which population is 14 larger.
The situation with water supply in Uzbekistan with 27 million of population is particularly tense. According to official data, 60 percent of drinking water in the republic is withdrawn from underground sources. More than 20 percent of the explored underground fresh water reserves have become unsuitable for drinking purposes due to salinity. At the same time the demand, based on demographic growth and an increasing level of urbanization, is continuously increasing. As a result, many households, especially in rural areas, consume non-potable water from open reservoirs.
According to the UN FAO, against the backdrop of declining water resources and difficult climatic conditions, the countries of the region face serious challenges in terms of food security. Droughts in Central Asia have a huge negative impact on the economies of the countries in the region, where the agricultural sector prevails. As a result of decreasing land fertility in Central Asia (due to soil salinity and excessive fertilizer doses), nearly 20 million rural residents suffer economic losses. Since independence, crop yields in the states of the region have decreased by 30 percent due to land degradation, resulting in an annual loss of $2 billion.
According to the World Health Organization, the potential impact of desertification is the risk of malnutrition due to reduced food and water supplies, access to clean water, increased respiratory disease caused by airborne dust, and the spread of infectious diseases.
At the same time, under conditions of further warming and reduction of precipitation, the prospective assessment of available water resources of the region does not imply their increase. Calculations made by ecologists show that by 2050 the volume of river flow in the Amu Darya river basin will decrease by 10-15% and in the Syr Darya river basin by 6-10%.
The only way to prevent the catastrophic consequences of Central Asia’s dehydration and save the population from hunger and disease is to develop and create an integrated water management system. Since all attempts to solve water problems locally over the past thirty years have not produced the desired effect, it is necessary to unite the efforts of all Central Asian states and China at the regional level, for example, within the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.
The states of the region need to conclude a strictly binding agreement or treaty between themselves, under which all hydropower plants will be built in the upper reaches of the rivers, but they must operate in the reclamation regime at the request of the downstream countries. It is necessary to create a unified energy system and a common market of Central Asian countries for the sale of products related to water and energy production. At the same time, a technologically unified system should have unified monetary settlements.
The downstream countries should understand that if they do not pay for water and invest in the construction of hydropower plants, the upstream farms will fall into decay. It is the lack of monetary compensation for the supplied water that makes the upstream countries to force the construction of hydropower plants at all costs, without thinking about their quality.
At the same time, at the domestic level, each of the countries of the region should develop and implement a national program for water conservation. Such a program will include reduction of wet crops (cotton and rice), modernization of main and irrigation canals with waterproofing and drainage systems, widespread introduction of drip irrigation, creation of a system of accounting and limiting excessive consumption of fresh water, wide use of technical (purified) water in industry and agriculture, provision the population with cheap potable water.
Joint actions of all Central Asian states represent the way for solving the water resources problem, since the alternative to this in the foreseeable future can be the threat of social disruptions with all the ensuing consequences in the form of uncontrolled migration of population.