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Central Asia's Looming Water Wars

By Arun P. Elhance. Arun P. Elhance is a professor of geography at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His book, "Hydropolitics in the Third World," is to be published this year by the US Institute of Peace in Washington. / January 11, 1993



AFTER signing the historic Camp David peace accord with Israel, the late Egyptian president, Anwar Sadat, is reported to have said that the only reason his country might go to war again with its neighbors would be a disagreement over shared waters.

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In another part of the world, the break-up of the Soviet Union into many independent nations has created an unprecedented potential for conflicts over the ownership and use of increasingly scarce and deteriorating freshwater supplies - supplies earlier shared by some republics under the command of a central authority in Moscow.

In arid Central Asia, shared waters could quickly become the catalyst for armed contests within and among five newly independent nations: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

The two main rivers in Central Asia, the Syrdaria and the Amudaria, each now flow through four of the five independent nations before entering the Aral Sea. Agriculture is still the main economic activity in all of these countries, and waters of the two rivers are responsible for as much as 75 percent of their combined agricultural production. The rivers also provide most of the water for drinking and sanitation for a combined population of nearly 52 million, which is fast multiplying. At present, close to 90 percent of the population in much of Central Asia does not have piped water supply.

The Aral Sea, once the fourth largest body of freshwater on earth, with a surface area of nearly 250,000 square miles, is now half that size. It is likely to completely disappear by early next century. Twenty of the 24 species of fish in the Aral have already vanished; the number of animal species in the surrounding areas has fallen from 173 to 38, some of which are now endangered.

By the early 1980s, water flows into the Aral had fallen to zero due to prolonged overexploitation and withdrawal of the river waters upstream. Because of rapid evaporation of the remaining water, the shore-line has already receded nearly 40 miles, leaving behind abandoned fishing towns and a saline desert from which high winds now deposit 75 tons of salt, dust, and toxins on the surrounding fields every year, adversely affecting global climate in the process.

MANY environmentalists agree there is no way to save this dying body of water other than by stopping all upstream water withdrawals from the two rivers for at least the next 30 years. This is clearly impossible, since all the Central Asian republics are highly dependent on the rivers for the survival of their economies.

To deal with impending water shortages in Central Asia, schemes were proposed in the past to reverse the south-north direction of some of the major Siberian rivers in Russia with the help of a series of "controlled" nuclear explosions, if necessary. Had they been implemented, such schemes would have produced global ecological disasters. But now, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the cash-starved Central Asian countries have no ability to initiate any large-scale water projects in the region. And tha t will remain the case for the foreseeable future.

One solution lies in creating a new supra-national authority, backed by international financing, which can manage and allocate the scarce waters of the Syrdaria and Amudaria in an efficient, equitable, and environmentally sound manner. The problem is that the Central Asian nations are very likely to resent and resist any dilution of their new-found national sovereignty, which the mandate, given a new regional water authority, would necessarily imply. One has only to look at the Western European nations, which are experiencing a host of problems on the way to creating regional institutions and legislation for collective action in the economic and environmental arenas, to realize what a formidable task such cooperation in Central Asia is likely to be.

In the meantime, water scarcity is accelerating in all five countries even as their economies deteriorate, despite or because of attempts at economic reforms. If the bitter historical legacies of unsettled boundary disputes and ethnic conflicts lead to further fragmentation in some of these countries - as is already happening in Tajikistan - the prospect of wars over shared river waters will increase.

Taking these tensions into consideration, the international community should watch out for the first signs of water conflicts in Central Asia. And let's not forget that Kazakhstan still has a huge stockpile of nuclear weapons and missiles; other countries in the region are also well armed.