Water Stories people, countries, rivers in central asia
At the end of October 2012, a group of 20 Central the water of the Oder River, and visit the Berlin water Asian journalists gather in Berlin. It is cold, rainy, and for treatment plant and a geodetic laboratory in Potsdam. many their first time in Germany. For some, it is the first The next time the participants meet is in early spring time they have left their home countries. Here, far from on the outskirts of Almaty, in the foothills of the Tian home, they will study global water issues, learn about Shan Mountains. The venue is the Alatau Sanatorium, German water management projects, and meet some once the exclusive holiday retreat of the nomenklatura of of the world’s leading experts on water questions. The the Kazakh Communist Party. The journalists are already seminar, which includes journalists from several coun- working on the draft of their articles, and they argue tries, allows the participants to set aside the views of the with one another late into the night, doubting, hesitating, question they are accustomed to at home and take the rewriting their copy every evening, and yet taking great opportunity to examine water questions from the “other satisfaction in the progress of their work. The remnants side of the border.” This exchange of views will result in of the winter snow crunch beneath the feet of journalists a collection of articles which the participants already be- as they debate ideas in twos, threes or even fours on the gin to work on in the first seminar. traditional night-time walks around the lake. In Berlin, everything is new and unfamiliar: the housIn the following months, work intensifies. Some visit es, the streets, the people, the language. The seminar neighbouring countries for the first time in their lives, program is packed: even at mealtimes the participants to see the upper or lower reaches of the river they grew must wear simultaneous translation devices so they can up on or the neighbouring part of their valley. Others listen to the next presentation by a renowned environ- set off to unknown corners of their own countries, seekmental expert. ing to understand how people live in small villages on For most of the journalists, water issues are already a dry stream beds or in flooded fertile valleys, where they familiar topic, but working on an international team is a get their drinking water from, how much it costs – and completely new experience. At a seminar on the first day, whether it is worthwhile in current economic conditions. the participants are asked to imagine how their country Several participants collaborate on articles, reworking is viewed by its neighbours, and everyone learns a lot, paragraphs and negotiating phrasing dozens of times. their horizons widened. But the most important thing re- Photographers and editors desperately try to figure out mains water, including the management of trans-border the names of unfamiliar places, matching texts to photorivers, water-saving technology, and international policy graphs of distant mountains and remote villages. on water resources, and finding agreement and common You hold in your hands the work of 14 journalists and ground here is not always easy. The participants head to two photographers from Dushanbe, Bishkek, Tashkent, Brandenburg to learn how Germany and Poland share Osh, Almaty, Berlin, St. Petersburg and Moscow. Our 2
collection of “Water Stories” begins with the journey of a group of journalists along one of the most important rivers in the region – the Syr Darya – to learn how people live in the different countries and different sections of the river, the difficulties they face, and how they overcome them. There follows a series of reports, interviews, and analytical articles on diverse aspects of Central Asia’s water question – from access to clean drinking water to the use of international assistance programs in the region, and from new water-saving technology to the scientific study of the region’s melting glaciers. The authors include two German journalists with extensive experience of living and working in Central Asia. Each article is followed by a brief text about the author in the form of a questionnaire, to introduce readers to the journalists who took part in the project. We hope these articles and photographs will help you to discover Central Asia, the processes of transformation underway there, and the complex question of its relationship with water – one of the most important issues both for this region and the whole world – through real people: the characters in the stories, the writers, and the photographers. Happy reading! Angelina Davydova, project leader
Most water resources are trans-boundary in nature, cooperation. The initiative is an integral component of crossing the territories of two or more states. As we the European Union’s Strategy for a New Partnership know from our experience with rivers in Europe, coop- with Central Asia. eration on common water resources benefits all parties. Germany places great emphasis on increased water It increases water, food and energy security while at the cooperation between the countries of Central Asia. Fossame time reducing the high costs of self-sufficiency tering joint water management can strengthen regional policies. stability and political rapprochement between countries Nevertheless, governments in some regions are which have different and sometimes conflicting interests still hesitant about trans-boundary water coopera- regarding the use of their water resources. tion – fears about high costs and a perceived loss of full In March 2012, Germany hosted the international control of seemingly national resources still need to conference “Blue Diplomacy for Central Asia”. The outbe overcome. Consequently, the decision to cooperate come was the joint Berlin Declaration – a commitment on shared water resources is not an easy one for many by Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, riparian states – even more so if there are political ten- Uzbekistan and Germany to strengthen cooperation on sions between them. improving the ecological, social and economic situation Therefore, it is important to change perspectives. in the region by fostering sustainable use of water reShared water resources do not need to be the object of sources. They also expressed their intention to continue competing interests, but can be a source of understand- and develop their cooperation in the context of the Bering and mutually beneficial cooperation, strengthening lin Process. For the first time, Afghanistan also particiregional stability and socio-economic development. pated in the conference as an observer. Germany’s Federal Foreign Office aims to pave the The Berlin Process started with projects at three way for peaceful water cooperation in shared river basins, levels: to benefit all riparian states and their populations. One at the scientific-technical level with the aim of region to which we are paying special attention in this establishing reliable databases and supporting measrespect is Central Asia – where Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, ures to enhance efficency and develop new technical Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Afghanistan solutions, all share the Aral Sea Basin. at the political-institutional level with the objective In April 2008, the Federal Foreign Office started the of supporting effective institutions for water manageWater Initiative for Central Asia – known as the “Berlin ment and coherent policy, Process”. It is the German Government’s offer to support at the capacity-building level, to develop the necthe countries of Central Asia in water management and essary professional capacities for integrated water reto make water a subject of intensified trans-boundary source management. 4
The Federal Foreign Office’s main implementation partners are the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ), the UN Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), the German Research Centre for Geosciences as a coordinator of the regional research network Central Asian Water (CAWa) and the German-Kazakh University in Almaty. Since 2012, a new dimension has complemented the activities of the Berlin Process: the project “De-polemicizing national discourses through regional cooperation of journalists” is being run by n-ost, the German Network for Reporting on Eastern Europe, and aims to raise awareness about water problems. Sometimes the perspectives of other riparian states are not reflected in Central Asian media outlets, although an understanding of the interests and needs of neighbouring countries is pivotal. In addition, environmental issues as such are often underrepresented in the media. n-ost brought together journalists from all five Central Asian countries and Afghanistan for joint workshops and analysis, resulting in the articles published here. This is an important component of our activities. The participants of this project crossed boundaries just like water crosses boundaries. They learned to see “their” river through their neighbours’ eyes. They will bring these new perspectives into their future reports for the media of their home countries, thereby spreading their experience. I thank all the participants and the organizers at n-ost for their engagement. This compilation of articles presents the result of the project, a collection of different and maybe sometimes challenging opinions and assessments of the water situation in Central Asia. We hope that it will stimulate a constructive discussion among readers in Central Asia as well as in Europe. Dr Hinrich Thölken Head of Division International Climate and Environmental Policy Sustainable Economy Federal Foreign Office
Uzbekistan 12 Farmers with Lasers 58 Water from the Tap 72 DROP BY DROP
Amu Dar ya
AFGhANISTAN 82 The Quiet Player
KAZAkhstan 30 Two Sides to One Reservoir 78 Lake Balkhash – The Next Aral?
Kyrgyzstan Syr Dar ya
18 the Drowned Hopes of Ketmen-Tube 40 The Leaking Roof of the World 62 Hydroelectric Diplomacy 66 Issyk Kul Pushed to Its Limits 76 Poisoned Spring
TAJIKISTAN 24 Where Rice Once Grew 40 The Leaking Roof of the World
o2 o4 10 36 86 92 96
introduction n-ost foreword German Federal Foreign Office Travels on the Syr darya Changing the Façade “You can’t just accept the Aral is doomed!” Water – Commodity or Gift of God? Imprint
The Naryn, Kyrgyzstanâ€™s most full-flowing river, runs through the Tian Shan Mountains. It begins in the east of the country, is dammed five times and flows into one of the Syr Daryaâ€™s two tributaries
Travels on the Syr darya T
he Syr Darya, one of the two great rivers of CenThanks to their efforts, we were able to gather a real tral Asia, flows through four countries in the region. set of human stories connected with one river, and to Hundreds of thousands of people in each of these build a real network of journalists from neighbouring countries are directly dependent on the temperament countries, many of whom were able to visit each other of the river and the water it provides for their very exis- and look at the water situations “with the eyes of their tence. In some places, the threat of flooding is a serious neighbours” for the first time. Their impressions and the problem – in others, droughts are becoming more fre- articles they produced vary widely, both in content and quent and lasting longer. But wherever you live along its style. But both during and after the project, the particicourse, life on the Syr Darya is never easy. Three journal- pants began to call themselves “Syr Daryans”, adding one ists from Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan decided more identity to the already rich tapestry of citizenship, to join forces and visit neighbouring countries to report nationality, language and culture that makes Central on how simple farmers, fishermen, and engineers live on Asians who they are. the banks of the Syr Darya. Journalist Sergei Kostychev travelled from Tashkent to the Fergana Valley, one of the most densely populated regions of Central Asia, some 400 kilometres southwest of Uzbekistan’s capital. Sergei then went to neighbouring Kazakhstan, where he met farmers living next to the new Koksarai Reservoir, not far from the Uzbek border in South Kazakhstan Province. Zainudin Orifi journeyed from Tajikistan’s capital Dushanbe, crossing the Anzob Mountain Pass and covering 380 kilometres on a journey to the north of the country to see with his own eyes the rice planters of the Kanibam district. Bakyt Ibraimov, from the Kyrgyz city of Osh, travelled 350 kilometres to the village of Ozgorush in the Jalalabad region, where he heard the stories of people whose fates were changed forever by the construction of a reservoir. 10
Photo: Zainudin Orifi
Zainudin Orifi, one of the participants of the project, during his investigation trip to the Syr Darya in northern Tajikistan
Photo: Waldemar Salesski
Mountain tops around Song Kol Lake in Kyrgyzstan. More than 90 percent of Kyrgyzstanâ€™s area is covered by mountains
AN DREI KU DRYASHOV
Age: 46 Town and country: I live in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. Who Do you live with? I live alone. Nationality and citizenship: Ethnic Russian citizen of Uzbekistan. Identity: What’s my identity? I don’t have an identity, I dissolve into a background of mountains, clouds, and emptiness. Why are you interested in water issues? Because in Central Asia water is the chief value. What was your most interesting or surprising experience with water? Walking on the bottom of the dried-up Aral Sea. What does the world think about your country? That it is somewhere near Afghanistan. If I hadn’t been a journalist... I think of journalism simply as work, with no right to think more than anyone else. If I didn’t take photographs, I’d draw.
The Toktogul hydroelectric dam is the largest dam in Kyrgyzstan. It was built back in 1975, in the middle segment of the Naryn, one of the tributaries of the Syr Darya river
The Drowned Hopes of Ketmen-Tube Every day, 73-year-old Karybek Tajibayev walks to collect water from a nearby canal â€“ the only source of drinking water in the village of Ozgorush. Years after the canal was built, residents are still waiting for irrigation water to help grow fruit and vegetables on the sandy land
Photo: Waldemar Salesski
Mountain villages next to one of Kyrgyzstanâ€™s greatest reservoirs still have no water
Resettling the people of the valley Karybek is one of a forgotten army of internally displaced persons who have been living in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan for more than four decades. In 1970, his family and their neighbours were evicted from the KetmenTube Valley to live in a cold mountain village to make way for a reservoir for the Toktogul hydroelectric dam. “We were resettled, but never received any kind of fiDam Building nancial compensation. We were given land, but no water The Toktogul Dam houses a power station, but elecsupply. As a result, we live next to the water – right next to a giant reservoir – but have no way of raising a normal tricity was only a secondary concern for the Soviet planners who came up with the idea. Their main goal was to crop of grain or anything else,” he says. In winter things are even more difficult. “The canal ensure irrigation water for the Kyrgyz part of Fergana freezes, and to get water we have to melt snow or ice,” Valley and to regulate the flow for the Naryn and the mighty Syr Darya, which it joins further downstream. says Karybek. The prospect of being flooded and re-housed did not go down well with the locals, but the regional party nomenklatura pushed forward with the decision of the central “We were resettled, but government in Moscow, soothing over resentment with never received any kind of promises of new villages and financial compensation to financial compensation. cover the costs of relocating and building a new life. LoWe were given land, but cal residents are still waiting to see any of that money. no water supply” “The houses and farm buildings, including those of my parents, are still there beneath the water,” said Karybek. “I will never forget my childhood in the blossoming orThere are no jobs in the village today. The locals sur- chards of apples, peaches and apricots, where black curvive on subsistence farming, raising a few fruit and vege- rents and raspberries grew.” tables and a handful of livestock, mostly goats whose milk they use to make dairy products to sell at market. Some catch fish and sell them on the Bishkek-Osh highway. “The Ketmen-Tube Valley, beneath the surface of the water, was a welcoming place in those days,” recalls Karybek. “There were 10,000 hectares for maize alone. Five thousand for wheat and barley, 13,000 for perennial grass. About 33,000 hectares of land ended up under water, of which 12,500 hectare was irrigated land.” Isabek Toktogulov, a retired agronomist, describes how the site of the current reservoir was once covered in summer forests and grasslands that were home to rare species of animals and birds. The inundation of tens of thousands of hectares was a tragedy for the local people, who were moved to half-empty lands where there is still no proper water supply.
It took more than 10 years of work to finish the dam, but by 1973 the project was more or less complete. The river was blocked, and the Ketmen-Tube Valley began to flood. More than 20,000 people who had previously lived in the valley had already been resettled in newly-built villages in the surrounding foothills. “It wasn’t just our houses and orchards in the flood zone, but architectural monuments, sacred shrines, the tombs of our ancestors,” sighs Karybek. “The Soviet authorities promised to rebury the dead elsewhere, but as far as I remember that was only partially done.” The bulk of resettlement had taken place in 1968 and 1969, when locals began to be moved into hastily built, barrack-like houses. “No one was especially outraged. Lots of people were employed building the hydro plant,” explains Karybek
A History of Floods Back then, Isabek Toktogulov was working as an agronomist at the local directorate for agricultural production. Now a pensioner, he recalls how many of the older residents opposed the flooding of their ancestral land. “When I was still a teenager, a Soviet scientific expedition came here and discovered monuments dating from the bronze age to the 16th century AD,” said Karybek. Archaeologists and historians working amongst the mounds and ruins of medieval settlements discovered traces of long-vanished nomadic peoples. The medieval Uluk-Korgon fortress, whose walls and towers rose high over the sharp rocks to provide protection in times of trouble, once dominated the valley. According to local legend, Ketmen-Tube got its name when a local farmer tried to dam the Naryn River so he could divert the water to irrigate his fields. He didn’t manage it, and in frustration threw down his ketmen (a traditional Central Asian hoe), which turned into a mountain. It is a tale spookily prescient of the fate of the valley, which since the mid 1970s has been drowned by an artificial lake. Bakyt Ibraimov, Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan
Age: Born 07/09/1967. Town and country: I was born and live in Osh, Kyrgyzstan. Who do you live with? My family consists of myself, my beloved wife, two gentle daughters, and two courageous sons. Nationality and citizenship: Kyrgyzstani. Identity: Man of the world. Why are you interested in water issues? This topical issue affects the lives of ordinary people: their health, crop yields, and hence their well-being and tranquillity all depend on the quality of and access to drinking and irrigation water. What was your most interesting or surprising experience with water? After our wedding my wife and I rented a very cheap flat on the top floor of a four storey building. Water almost never reached the level of our home and we had to draw water at night. One evening there was torrential rain. We put out basins and buckets and by morning we had plenty of rain water, which we used to drain the toilet. That’s how we solved our own water problem. What does the world think about your country? My tiny mountainous country, lost amongst the peaks of the Tian Shan, could make a fantastic tourist destination, but the absence of infrastructure and decent services hinders development of that sector of the economy. If I hadn’t been a journalist, I’d have been... an ecologist, obviously!
Photo: Waldemar Salesski
Tourists at the Charyn River in a national park east of Almaty in Kazakhstan. The Charyn Canyons, among the largest in the world, are also located here
Where Rice Once Grew Receding waters leave locals without the means to live Falling water levels in the Syr Darya River have decimated rice-growing communities in Tajikistanâ€™s fertile Fergana Valley, leading to massive depopulation of this once thriving region
Water fed the farmers
It was a severe blow to the local economy, and ordinary locals bore the brunt of it. Rice was not only the ulyam Sharipov, 55, has worked on the banks of the main food, but the main industry in the area. With the Syr Darya in northern Tajikistan all his adult life. rice fields gone and few other jobs to turn to, many came Every day for decades he has laboured from dawn to to the conclusion that they had no choice but to leave to dusk in the rice fields next to one of the two greatest riv- find employment elsewhere. Even for those who had preers in Central Asia. But his children, who were born and viously only idly toyed with idea of leaving, the loss of the raised here, left long ago to seek fortune and happiness rice fields was decisive. in Russia. Hundreds of thousands of people in Tajikistan have similar stories. This is the Fergana Valley, a green oasis in the barren Even for those who had Central Asian uplands made fertile by the upper reaches previously only idly toyed of the Syr Darya. The river officially starts at the confluwith idea of leaving, the ence of the Naryn and the Kara Darya, further up the loss of the rice fields valley in what is now Uzbekistan, before rushing across was decisive the border into Tajikistan, cutting the northern capital of the country in two. The river may be young here, but it is already strong, in People who had given their whole lives to the developplaces stretching 200 metres across. The water is crystalclear, with multicoloured stones clearly visible in the depths ment of their village, region, and country now gave up of the river, and infamous for strong undertows which can everything, even their homes and their families, to move drag even professional swimmers to their deaths. In sum- hundreds of kilometres from their native region and start mer it is deliciously warm, the water being heated by the again from scratch. The village of Niyazbek is no excepsun as it passes through the Kairakkum Reservoir. But in tion – Gulyam’s children, now working in St. Petersburg, are just two of the many young people who left. winter the river brings only coldness and misery. The villagers’ trials did not end with the drought, The people of the village Niyazbek on the banks of the Syr Darya have raised rice for generations. The white however. Soon after the water shortage ended, the rivgrain is the crucial staple food for every family in the er swelled, broke its banks and swamped the few paddy Fergana Valley, and is the core ingredient of the national fields the famers had managed to save, turning many of dish, plov. When the river was stronger, hundreds of peo- them into bogs. ple laboured in flooded fields along the river’s banks to cultivate the crop. Rheumatism is still one of the most widespread medical complaints in northern Tajikistan – a legacy of the cold, damp conditions of such work. But several years ago, locals began to notice that the level of water in the river was falling. It was the beginning of the end for the rice growers: shallow waters meant a smaller harvest, and residents soon faced a shortage of their most important foodstuff. The gap in the market was immediately filled by imported – and in the opinion of the locals, inferior – rice from China. Famine was averted, despite a great deal of grumbling about the quality of the foreign rice. With local prodution falling, however, there was little real choice but to buy the imported product. Local farmers Rice is the crucial staple food for every family in the Fergana Valley, were soon forced out of the market altogether. and is the core ingredient of the national dish, plov
Photo: Zainudin Orfi
These violent fluctuations in the river level are partly just the vagaries of climate – the water shortage the locals suffered was at least in part due to a devastating drought that swept Central Asia in the 1990s, for example. But the political weather can be just as devastating to riverside communities: after independence in 1991, each new country along the river (the Syr Darya and its main tributaries run through four) adopted its own approach to water management, not necessarily with any thought to the needs of their neighbours.
The Past and Future The Syr Darya has sustained the rice growers of the Fergana Valley for generations, but like abused spouses, many have found its increasingly unpredictable and violent mood swings impossible to live with. Vast numbers of rice growers have moved away, and today cultivated rice fields are few and far between. Gulyam works in one such field close to a pumping station. He may be just five years off retirement age, but he continues to work the damp, cold fields for his family and those of his neighbours who have not forgotten the taste of local rice. The money his sons send back from their salaries as fish-shop workers in St. Petersburg will be enough to help Gulyam through one more winter. But come spring, he will be back out in the rice fields. Looking out over the almost deserted region, he would much rather see his children back home. But then, he adds, they had no real choice. “It was a bit easier before,” he recalls. “Water issues were settled with the proverbial ‘one call from Moscow’.”
“It was a bit easier before,” he recalls. “Water issues were settled with the proverbial ‘one call from Moscow’” Under the Soviet Union, the Central Asian republics shared water from the rivers as directed by the government in Moscow. But when the Soviet Union collapsed that regulation disappeared, and no one since has come up with a water management plan that all sides can agree to. 22
Gulyam recounts an ancient Tajik legend about Farhad, who in a fight with his enemies sent rocks crashing down from the high banks of the Syr Darya, diverting the river’s course. Today at that place stands a dam named after the hero, with channels through it that once irrigated the steppe. The valuable thing here is not the water in the river, but the water that reaches the fields when it is needed. Today, the shallow waters of the river can be crossed by a ford. “The entire outflow of the Naryn River, the tributary of the Syr Darya, ends up in the Toktogul Reservoir in Kyrgyzstan. On the left bank Uzbekistan’s Zadarinsky district also takes a lot of water. And all that reaches us is sand, sand, sand. The earth is dotted with white spots of salt like ulcers, and the district now looks unkind, unfriendly,” says Gulyam. At the end of the day Gulyam hurries home. It gets dark quickly here. As he goes he smacks his forehead and exclaims: “This is our greatest wealth! Everything else we can buy.”
Photo: Zainudin Orifi
Gulyam Sharipov, 55, works every day in the rice fields. He says: “We need to understand that we must invest in public education”
In 20 years the next generation will be earning money somewhere in another town, region, or country. “We need to understand that we must invest in public education, which will help this country and its people. That is, if we don’t want to be dependent on the whims of this or any other river, or suffer from the political decisions of our own or neighbouring governments. People will be able to achieve more if time is not lost,” says Gulyam. Darkness falls, and Gulyam returns home. His name in Tajik means “slave.” But Gulyam is not like a slave. Every day he takes his ketmen, a kind of Central Asian hoe, and works tirelessly on the banks of the Syr Darya, undeterred by the meagre returns. He works for himself, for his dream that one day his labours might improve the already difficult lives of the people of this Central Asian region. Even if just a little; even if only with the help of a pot of plov made with local rice. Zainudin Orifi, Dushanbe, Tajikistan 23
Photo: Waldemar Salesski
This oasis in central Kyrgyzstan is an example of water inflow in the region
Age: 47 (though I consider myself a 20-year-old kid). Town and country: Dushanbe, Tajikistan (but I was born in the border district of Konibodom in the Fergana Valley, so as well as Tajik I also speak Uzbek). Who do you live with? I live and work in the Tajik capital of Dushanbe, my family are in northern Tajikistan and we keep in contact virtually, but celebrate holidays properly… Citizenship and nationality: Tajik descendent from the 10th century Samanid Empire. Identity: Journalist and romantic. Why are you interested in water issues? Water is life. In my childhood I read an interesting book called “Where the Water Flows”, and that’s how I became fascinated by the topic and got interested in water management. What does the world think of your country? The world should learn where Tajikistan is before it passes judgement on it. If I hadn’t been a journalist, I’d have been... a lawyer.
Two Sides to One
One region’s flood-defence measures mean serious trouble for its neighbours A dam on the lower reaches of the Syr Darya River in southern Kazakhstan has saved tens of thousands of people from flooding. However saving one community from the waters has created such immense problems for others that many locals are thinking about leaving the area for good
The River Keeper
ne February evening in 2005, the people of the village of Akkum, about 12 kilometres from the Syr Darya River in southern Kazakhstan, were alerted by a flood warning. Zhalgasbek Zhattarkhanov immediately sent his pregnant wife and child to stay with relatives, while he himself stayed to keep watch on the river bank. At 2 a.m. water began to reach the houses. Warning local residents of the danger, he rushed to the Otyrar regional centre for help. “The mayor gave us five Kamaz trucks,” he says. “I myself got behind the wheel of one of them and we hurried back. Only two vehicles made it. The others got stuck in the road, which had already turned into a swamp.” Pausing occasionally to adjust the cap on his head, he describes how the waters engulfed the village so rapidly that it did not even occur to anyone to try to save their property. They grabbed only their documents and warm clothes before hurrying to safety. The huge Kamaz trucks managed to complete only two journeys, taking 25 families to safe locations on the steppe and in the highlands. By dawn on February 26 the villages of Akkum and Yeshkykor and part of the village of Mayakum were flooded. 26
Zhalgasbek, his brother and their former neighbours lived on the steppe for a month and a half until the waters receded far enough for them to return home. But their houses – built mostly of mud bricks – had been destroyed. The Syr Darya is one of the great rivers of Central Asia. Rising in the Tian Shan Mountains of Kyrgyzstan and the uplands of Uzbekistan and emptying into the Aral Sea in Kazakhstan, it irrigates vast swathes of Central Asia’s cotton-growing heartland on its way. It was a massive expansion of these irrigation projects in Soviet times that caused the Aral Sea to shrink to a fraction of its former size – one of the greatest environmental disasters in history.
Photo: Andrei Kudryashov
The flood area of the Syr Darya in southern Kazakhstan
In its lower reaches, the Syr Darya becomes a lazy river – with no sharp bends in its course and no fast current, it waters make their steady way hundreds of kilometres across the Kazakh steppe. The closer it gets to the Aral Sea, the slower and more sullen it looks. By the time it reaches the mouth its waters are barely disturbed at all, few adults or children being willing to take a dip in a river they believe is repeatedly “soiled” along its course. But even this quiet river reminds locals of its presence from time to time – especially in winter and spring, when water levels can rise literally overnight. That was exactly what happened in 2005 and 2008, when the Syr Darya burst its banks and caused massive flooding in the provinces of South Kazakhstan and Kyzylorda. Climbing the staircase that is all that is left of his house, Zhalgasbek’s hand draws an arc in the air to show where a fence had stood, the small yard it had enclosed, and the corner between three bushes where his mother Bazargul baked bread for the family. It is difficult to recognize the place now. There is nothing left of the house, and the bushes have long since grown tall and wild. “My wife gave birth two days after the flood,” he smiles. “It’s a good thing I told her to go. The neighbours joked that she gave birth from fright, and everyone’s been telling us to call our daughter Tolkyn [the Kazakh word for ‘wave’].”
“After the resettlement I lost everything... Now my neighbours and I are thinking more and more about returning”
On one side of this deserted place stand the ruins of destroyed houses. On the other the steppe stretches out into the distance, featureless except for a couple of low, brown hills. A light breeze bends the already low steppe grass, kicking up small eddies of dust. Picking a path through the ruins, Zhalgasbek leads the way to the former school, the building that suffered the least damage from the flood. Today it is inhabited by his former neighbour, Sandybai, and his son. By an irony of fate, Sandybai’s wife used to work in this school that is now their home. 27
Silent Danger In the neighbouring Arys district, 23-year-old Bekbol is thinking exactly the opposite, his thoughts increasingly turning to new places. The reason for his restlessness is the swamp that is edging closer to his house with each passing year – the result of water from the Syr Darya being channelled into the reservoir at Koksarai. The structure itself is basically a huge overflow system: Through the window aperture of a collapsed wall a cow a canal channels excess water to a vast, purpose-built regards the arriving humans with apparent surprise. The reservoir where it is collected during the flooding season. ruined village is currently home to three families who The project has already proved its worth, preventing the stay here to graze their cattle on the open steppe. The river from reaching the critical levels that led to the disresidents of this tiny community have installed their own astrous floods of 2005 and 2008. electricity, and once a week they make a supply run for But residents of villages close to the reservoir are fuwater. They are already accustomed to the Spartan liv- rious about the flooding of a large portion of land that ing conditions. The only real problem is dealing with the formerly served as pasture for their cattle. The area in wolves who became regular visitors to the place after the question looks idyllic; in any other place it could well be humans left. a beauty spot favoured by weekenders and tourists for The residents of the three villages were resettled in splashing about and cooking barbecues. But there are no undamaged parts of the neighbouring town of Mayakum, tourists here – or any other people. where a Kazakh government program provided new housing for the refugees. The Zhattarkhanovs received their new home six years ago, and 37-year-old Zhalgas“Just yesterday I lost a goat,” bek now lives with his five children, wife and parents. The says the shepherd, without head of the household himself is currently unemployed, moving his eyes from the and spends his time helping his mother and father on grazing herd the farm. Since being rehoused he lost most of his income, and the family is largely dependent on his parents’ pension. Bekbol is a shepherd. He lives with his older brothIn the first years after resettlement, annual flood warnings from the Kazakh Department of Emergency Situ- er Nurgys in a house on the banks of the artificial lake, ations banished any dreams the refugees may have had which fills up every spring. There’s not a single other about returning to their village. But they did not know house to be seen for tens of kilometres in every direction, that a major engineering project was already underway – even though the horizon is unbroken by hills, trees or the construction of a vast reservoir to hold excess water buildings. Construction vehicles rumble down the nearnear the village of Koksarai. Two years ago, the new in- by road along the canal at twenty-minute intervals. The stallation was brought into operation. And experts from house was built by the brothers’ father, but he died five the Emergency Situations Ministry insist that no matter years ago. The young men are basically left to themselves. Each morning Bekbol drives a herd of goats several kilhow much controversy it has generated, it performs its ometres through overgrown fields to drink. It is a dangermain task – acting as a flood defence – very well indeed. “Before resettlement I worked in a cotton field, grazed cat- ous place for animals. When there is not enough space on tle, and harvested food for market,” says Zhalgasbek. “After the bank, the sheep and goats move deeper into the water the resettlement I lost everything, and I could not go back. and fall into a trap. Because of high humidity and the Now the problem [of flooding] has been solved, my neigh- rise of ground water, the soil becomes soft and turns to bours and I are thinking more and more about returning.” quicksand. One wrong move and an animal can be stuck. 28
Photo: Andrei Kudryashov
Zhalgasbek Zhattarkhanov by the ruins of what used to be his house before the flood
“In the evening, fighting off competition from the flock, a goat went into the water and couldn’t get out again. I didn’t notice her. I only found the remains in the morning – in the night jackals came and ate the helpless creature. She couldn’t even run.” Driving the flock aside, he agrees to show me the dangerous spot. On the way the young man explains that he has lost three sheep so far this spring, and last year the figure reached 20. Bekbol has almost 700 sheep and goats, and it is no easy task to keep track of every animal. All a shepherd can do is hope he notices an animal in trouble in time to ride down with a horse and pull it out. Bekbol’s horse pricks up its ears as we approach the swamp, perhaps because it senses something, or perhaps because its master pulls it by the bridle. The horseman says his brother Nurgys is watching a herd of cows further along the reservoir. Those places are even worse. If an animal gets stuck, it will never come out – a shepherd alone is not strong enough, and it is impossible to get a car up there.
From Bekbol’s and Nurgys’ house you can see the neat green fence surrounding the Muslim cemetery at Kulegen, which stands one kilometre from the bank of the swamp. At the end of April, when the waters accumulated over winter began to recede, they found human bones lying on the wet earth. They asked local elders about the find, but no answer was forthcoming. No one could remember a cemetery ever having been there. But it was suggested that they were from an extension of the cemetery at Kulegen, only a small part of which is enclosed by the modern green fence. There is another opinion. When the counter-regulator was being built, media reported warnings from archaeologists that Koksarai was the site of ancient burial grounds that could be lost forever if construction continued. 29
“We haven’t asked [about the bones] anywhere else yet.” Bekbol shakes his head and turns his horse to go back. “We try not to go too near the shore, because we might be stepping on someone’s grave. And such lack of respect for the dead is a great sin.” Despite all this unpleasantness, people are adapting to the changes. One woman whose house is not far from the counter-regulator says some people will always be discontent, and although the area is no longer as useable as it was, the project has its benefits. A new highway is being built, electricity has arrived, and trade outlets are opening nearby. For many, but not all, this compensates for the damage it has caused. Sergei Kostychev, Tashkent, Uzbekistan
Photo: Andrei Kudryashov
The residents of the three villages were resettled in undamaged parts of the neighbouring town of Mayakum
SERGEi KOSTYCH eV
Town and country: Born, studied and work in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. Nationality and citizenship: Ethnic Russian citizen of Uzbekistan. Why are you interested in water issues? I’m hooked. I often hear about water, about shortages, about excess, water above, water below, water to the left and right. You can’t hide from this topic, it’s the question that preoccupies people now and will worry them for a long time to come. That’s what I do. What was your most interesting or surprising experience with water? The most interesting was my very first experience with water as a journalist. I was told to make a video report about the threat of flooding to a town. I, a colleague, a camera, and a senior trainer rushed into the thick of events. True, the event was actually over by the time we got there, but the excitement I felt, and the enthusiasm with which I approached that story, has always inspired me to other journalistic exploits. If I hadn’t become a journalist I’d have been... an environmental activist, and in principle everything was going in that direction. As a student I was involved in community initiatives, then in various projects that drew me more and more into the sphere of activism.
Changing the Façade A GERMAN JOURNALIST'S VIEW OF CENTRAL ASIA ON THE MOVE
t a station on the Almaty metro a cleaner in blue By 2015 a new high-speed railway line will whisk travoveralls methodically scrubs the floor. The water ellers across the steppe between Almaty and Astana at in her bucket is clear, as if it had come straight 350 kilometres an hour. The foundation of Kazakhstan’s from the tap, and the marble floor is absolutely clean. head spinning development is its natural wealth: the Not a drip of soda nor a single bit of discarded chewing sands of the starving steppe hide deposits of zinc, tin, gum despoils the floor – and who of the rare passengers coal, and bauxite. But the most important of all, here would dare to desecrate this pristine marble, brilliant as and in neighbouring Turkmenistan, are oil and gas. an ice rink? The cleaner and her two companions conBut while members of Kazakhstan’s emergent midtinue their work. Two policemen watch. dle class fill the shopping centres and nightclubs, in Everything must be clean, cultured, and modern: Turkmenistan less than two percent of the population that is what the future looks like. No matter that the have access to the Internet. Despite its wealth of oil and new metro system – just seven stations at the moment gas, much of the rural population of this country of six – is of little use to commuters in a city of millions. The million still survive on subsistence agriculture. important thing is that it is new, that the shiny subway is Turkmenistan is the only neutral country in Central there. Not since Soviet times has Central Asia seen such Asia. All the others are vying with one another, both regrandiose projects, and certainly not in this seismically gionally and in the international arena. China, for one, active region of southern Kazakhstan. It may have taken eyes the region hungrily. But it is not alone. Europe also 30 years, but the metro – only the second in the region needs natural resources, and since the beginning of the after Tashkent’s – is now open! war in Afghanistan in 2001 the Central Asian republics Kazakhstan is setting an example for its neighbours have assumed a new military importance for Western in Central Asia: this is a country on the rise and full of countries. energy, and not only in Almaty. In the one-time backWhen the countries of the ancient Silk Road first water of Astana, which President Nursultan Nazarbayev emerged from the ruins of the Soviet Union, they were has turned into an ultra-modern capital of futuristic quite clearly within a Russian sphere of influence. The skyscrapers, giant entertainment complexes, fountains 1990s were the hardest test for Central Asia: thousands and mosques, Dubai has a serious competitor. of businesses went bankrupt, entire industries crumbled 32
Metro station in Almaty with the portrait of the president
like houses of cards, and with them went the livelihoods of whole cities. Galloping inflation, power cuts, and unemployment swept the region like a plague. Tajikistan was torn apart by a six year civil war - it is still not clear how many tens of thousands it killed or displaced. For Tajikistan’s neighbours, the war served as a terrible omen of what could happen were they ever to allow their own internal conflict to spin out of control. Today, almost 20 years later, the map is almost unrecognizable. The borders may not have not moved, but thousands of migrants have. Tajiks seek work in Moscow, Kazakh Germans have left for Europe, Mongols tend to look for work in Kazakhstan’s Pavlodar province, while Uzbeks fleeing violence in Osh, Kyrgyzstan, have settled in the Fergana Valley. The bazaars are run by Chinese, who have pushed out the local street traders. All the dozens of peoples between the Pamirs and the Caspian are on the move. Uzbekistan, the most populous country in the region, is currently home to some 30 million people, more than a third of whom are under 18 years of age. Only a few of them, when they grow up, will follow their parents to work in the boudless cotton fields. But here, where the economy is strictly controlled by the state, change will come only very slowly.
In impoverished Kyrgyzstan, the people have already overthrown two elected presidents. Other than a little gold, this stretch of the Tian Shan Mountains has little to offer in natural wealth, and living conditions have changed little in recent years. True, Bishkek is a city with a relatively liberal atmosphere and a seemingly endless stream of newly opening street cafes, but the distance to the frenzy of consumption on the other side of the mountains in Kazakhstan might as well be measured in light years. Over in Almaty, one no longer shops at the supermarket – it’s too small and too cheap. The preferred place to go is the “megastore.” To get there, the more successful citizens fill up their cars with full tanks of petrol and diligently stand, day after day, in hours-long traffic jams on the city’s six-lane highways. Those who are not yet so successful make do with the metro. At the Almaly metro station, 12 women scrub the glorious marble floor to a shine, though it is already covered in special coating that repels dirt. Three cashiers sit behind the glass windows, waiting for passengers. Sunday wears on into evening. Two policeman stand frozen on the escalators like statues. But why do they look so sad? Joerg Albinsky, Berlin, Germany 33
Photo: Waldemar Salesski
The region around Song Kol Lake in central Kyrgyzstan is visited by many tourists. Such tents are normally used to accommodate tour guides
Age: 43 Town and Country: Berlin, Germany. Who do you live with? My family and a gigantic rabbit. Nationality and citizenship: German. Identity: The country I was born in no longer exists. When I’m in Kazakhstan, everyone says I’m from “the West”. When I’m in Germany, they say I’m from “the East”. I moved to Berlin a few years ago. I can choose to be poor or rich, old or young, wise or naive, sociable or boring. Why are you interested in water issues? My first encounter with Central Asia was with the arid steppes in the books of Chinghiz Aitmatov, and also articles about the dying Aral – ever since, for me the region has represented the value of water. What was your most interesting or surprising experience with water? Spending a night with six friends under torrential rain in a torn two-man tent. What does the world think about your country? I think the world believes we are very precise and thorough, but boring. Also, Germans seem to encounter a kind of secret respect, and in part even relief, wherever they go, partly perhaps because people feel they ought to be like us, but no one would ever want to be. If I hadn’t been a journalist I’d have been... a good violinist in a third-rate orchestra.
The Leaking Roof of the World How the melting of glaciers will affect the people of Central Asia
Photo: Elena Sherbakova
In 80 years, Central Asia will be a desert. Its inhabitants will fight for every drop of water, and the scale of climate-driven migration will grow year by year. Looking at the clear mountain streams rushing with a murmur through the picturesque mountain scenery and the farmers who peacefully raise cotton alongside them today, that scenario seems like an apocalyptic fantasy. How likely is such a course of events?
The Inylchek in the Tian Shan is among the largest non-polar glaciers in the world
Warm and Warmer
or tourists arriving to conquer the peaks of Central Asia’s mountains, the problem of melting glaciers probably does not look that serious. The change in temperature and the retreat of the glaciers’ surface area is still difficult to notice with the naked eye. But according to scientists from Kyrgyzstan’s Centre for Climate Change, the average temperature in the region has risen by 0.8 degree Celsius over the past 100 years. Experts also believe that the number of extremely hot days has increased, and the average air temperature rose by 1.2 degree Celsius over the 20th century. What’s more worrying is that the rate of warming has been speeding up, and a fifth of Kyrgyzstan’s glaciers have already melted away. If the current pace of melting continues, the Tian Shan and Pamir Mountains will lose around 70 percent of their glacier cover by 2050, and by 2100 only glaciers at an altitude above 4,000 metres will survive. The economic activities of humans only compound the situation. With no mains electricity, communities in remote mountain areas have to fell trees to survive. And the clearing of the forests inevitably leads to the destruction of the so-called “water zone” and the disappearance of places where water can accumulate.
Kyrgyzstan | Tajikistan
The Pamir range is even richer in these inventions of nature: at 77 kilometres, its Fedchenko Glacier is the longest anywhere outside the Polar Regions and covers an area of 700 square kilometres – making it bigger than St. Petersburg. Besides their vast scale, the glaciers of the Tian Shan and Pamir are remarkably varied. In the large valleys the so-called surging glaciers suddenly expand and then shrink. There are smaller ones – round, hanging, sloped – all of which cover several thousand square kilometres. Various estimates put their total volume at 500 to 800 cubic kilometres of ice in Tajikistan alone. At first glance, such resources look inexhaustible. But like any other treasure, water is easily wasted, and the problem of preserving water resources in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan is becoming more pressing each year. The main cause is global warming and human activity.
A Drop of Water is More Precious Than Gold
The nature of the region means that even an insignificant annual melt carries a serious threat. “The danger lies in mountain and sub-glacial lakes that form as a result of the melting,” says Professor Abdulhamid Kayumov. “The consequences if one of those lakes overflows would be terrible. The water carries huge Big Glacier – Big Melt blocks of ice and rocks that are very dangerous. It could For centuries, the Pamir Mountains have been known destroy infrastructure and agricultural lands near the glaas the Roof of the World. Their neighbours in the near- cier and even kill people.” by Tian Shan range have been dubbed the “Mountains Experts in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan are equally conof Heaven”. It is not for nothing that such comparisons cerned. “If in the 1960s there were estimated to be about occurred to travellers and locals – these powerful giants 8,200 glaciers in Kyrgyzstan, by 2100 no more than 1,500 tower to heights of five or seven rocky kilometres. Up will remain, and those will be much smaller,” said Zykhra here, far from human settlements, the mountains guard Abaikhanova, director of the Kyrgyz Republic Centre for the most precious, priceless gift of nature: water, frozen Climate Change. in thousands of glaciers. As such the people of Tajikistan Abaikhanova has been studying the impact of climate and Kyrgyzstan can be considered rich. There are more change for more than 10 years, and helped draft Kyrgyzthan 8,000 square kilometres of glaciers in Kyrgyzstan, stan’s first and second national communications to the covering an area slightly smaller than Cyprus. Tajikistan United Nations Framework Convention on Climate boats 8,492 glaciers on an area of similar size. Change. The largest glacier in the Tian Shan, the Inylchek, is She says changes currently underway will have an amongst the largest non-polar glaciers in the world. irreversible impact. “First of all, the runoff of water into Divided into northern and southern branches, it covers a the rivers is going to change. If current runoff in Kyrgyztotal area of 740 square kilometres and has an ice sheet an stan is about 47 cubic kilometres a year, by 2100 it will average of 200 metres thick. be down to between 24 and 33 cubic kilometres. Under 37
Kyrgyzstan | Tajikistan
the influence of these factors yields will change, and mudslides, landslides, and breaches of high mountain lakes will become more frequent.” She is echoed by Dr Shamil Ilyasov, who has been studying climate change for 15 years. “Glaciers themselves don’t have a big impact on water runoff, in general they account for only 10 percent of the total. But an increase in temperature leads to an increase in evaporation, and not all of it will reach the river,” he says. Less water in the country will mean problems in agriculture, drinking water supplies, and the energy sector, which is almost entirely dependent on water resources. Both countries have enormous plans in this sector, but even they are likely to prove overly optimistic. “We estimate that if Kyrgyzstan’s GDP grows by four or five percent a year, we will have run out of hydropower resources by the middle of the 21st century. We won’t even have enough for domestic consumption,” says the scientist.
On the Brink of Water Controversy As a result, social issues are exacerbated. Already Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, located further downstream and likely to face water shortages in future, cannot be excluded from the debate about the mountain range’s vast ice deposits. “Everyone will suffer,” predicts Ilyasov. “There is a water allocation system, by which countries upstream should set aside part of the runoff for their neighbours, and of course the less water we have, the less water they have.” Experts at the Centre for Climate Change anticipate additional problems from extreme climate events. It is still impossible to make a long-term forecast, but there is reason to believe that floods will become more powerful and longer lasting, and droughts will be more frequent and longer. Climate change also has grim implications for public health. A particular threat is the spread of infectious diseases carried by insects: a temperature increase of just one degree Celsius could lead to a tenfold increase in malaria-carrying mosquitoes. The ranges of rodents, ticks, and other disease-carrying organisms are also set to expand.
“What this means is that if in, say, [Kyrgyzstan’s capital city] Bishkek the rate of acute intestinal infections is currently 48 cases per 100,000, by the year 2100 it will be up to 57,” says Abaikhanova. “Respiratory infections are also going to get worse – if there are about 600 to 700 sufferers out of 100,000 people in the capital and the surrounding areas today, in 100 years we’ll be looking at 1,600 people.” The picture is no better in Tajikistan. According to a 2009 World Bank report, it is both the most vulnerable country to climate change in Central Asia and has the least capacity to adapt. The most immediate threat is to the agricultural sector, which employs 66 percent of the population.
With the Naked Eye The climate scientists’ data is confirmed by the work of glaciologists – a very rare breed and perhaps one of the most unusual professions of Central Asia. But in the heights of the Tian Shan and Pamir Mountains, amongst thousands of glaciers of all sizes, they pursue their profession. Ryskyl Usubaliyev is one of those who has been to the “Roof of the World” and seen with his own eyes what is happening to the glaciers in this kitchen where the weather of Central Asia is cooked up. He is a research fellow at the Central Asian Institute for Applied Geosciences, founded in Kyrgyzstan in 2002 with the support of the German Research Centre for Geosciences in Postdam and one of the main leading centres of glaciology in the region. “For the observations we choose only a few of the glaciers and look for signs typical of all the glaciers in the region,” says Usubaliyev. The scientists, who set off on expeditions to inspect their subjects each summer, are currently watching four glaciers in different parts of the country: Abramova, Golubina, Western Suek, and glacier
The Inylchek covers a total area of 740 square kilometres and has an ice sheet an average of 200 metres thick
Photo: Elena Sherbakova
“In 2011, the Medvezhiy pulsating glacier – that is, one that periodically surges – jumped forward 800 metres, and that means it’s growing”
Kyrgyzstan | Tajikistan
No. 354. There is also a research station on the Inylchek Glacier, but because of its inaccessibility and vast size the scientists have not yet been able to gather enough data for publication. But even without specialist equipment, it is easy to see how much this great glacier has shrunk in recent years – a streak of light on the rocks making it clear even to the non-specialist eye that much has been irretrievably lost. “Each year the glacier recedes by 7 to 12 metres and thins by about 1.5 metres; in the past half century about 50 metres have melted from the surface,” says Usubaliyev. “But that doesn’t mean the glacier is just going to disappear, since a considerable quantity of new ice each winter compensates for the thaw.” It is this “balance” between summer losses and winter gains that scientists are watching. Like accountants, they are looking for a “positive” balance that means the glaciers have managed to recover over winter what they lost in the summer. There is not yet much reason to celebrate so far, however – since the mid 1970s, when glacier observations began in Kyrgyzstan, a positive balance has only been observed twice – in 1982 and 1984. No addition to the ice mass has been observed since 2000. 39
Kyrgyzstan | Tajikistan
“After the analysis of September 2006, we noticed that every year the tongue of ice recedes, that is to say it shrinks, on average by about 16 metres. Most of the melt comes from the thinner parts at the side of the glacier. If you compare it with data from 1980, the surface of the glacier at the bottom has contracted by 50 metres. The very tongue of ice has shrunk by a kilometre,” says Abdulrashid Tagoibekov, head of the geographic expeditions department Tajikistan State Hydrometeorology University. That, he says, means only one thing: prepare for the worst. People should already be thinking about how to adapt to new conditions. Kyrgyzstan submitted its second national communication to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in 2009, and by 2012 the country had already developed a strategy for adaptation to climate change. A program for monitoring glacial and snow lakes was also adopted in Tajikistan, and a drive to assess the condition of individual glaciers is already underway. But to really make a difference the experts need to undertake field rsearch – an expensive luxury, but one that scientists are convinced more than justifies its costs. For Tajik scientists, the absolute proof of the value of such investment came in 2011, when an expedition to the upper reaches of the Vakhsh and Panj rivers witnessed a remarkable natural phenomena. “In 2011, the Medvezhiy pulsating glacier – that is, one that periodically surges – jumped forward 800 metres, and that means it’s growing. That only happens once every 10 to 15 years. For 15 days scientists monitored the condition of the glacier and gained valuable information. But the movement of the glacier created a threat: if it had blocked the Abdukagor River, it would have created a lake that would sooner or later have burst once the ice was no longer able to hold it. And that momentary flood could have caused serious damage,” says Professor Kayumov.
Expectations from the Future “We have come up with several scenarios. By the most pessimistic, average annual temperatures in Kyrgyzstan will increase by four degrees Celsius by the end of the century. The most optimistic scenario is a 1.5 degree increase. What actually happens depends on whether countries can agree to cut emissions,” said Ilyasov. “If countries can get a program to reduce emissions together by 2015 and have it implemented by 2020, then there will be grounds for optimism,” he said. 40
Scientists believe governments need to be thinking two steps ahead already. But it could be several years, and several melted glaciers, before the leaders of the world get up from the negotiating table. Elena Sherbakova, Dushanbe, Tajikistan Irina Dudka, Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan
What is a Glacier Worth? In Kyrgyzstan, the answer is precisely $5 billion – a figure arrived at after the republic carried out the first ever financial valuation of a specific glacier. The Davydov Glacier, named after the Soviet geographer and hydrologist Lev Davydov, lies on the Ak Shirak ridge in the central Tian Shan Mountains. The Kumtor Operating Company, a Canadian mining firm that has been mining gold nearby for the past 20 years, cut away part of the glacier in order to reach richer ores. The remaining ice has since almost all melted away. At the end of 2012 the Kyrgyz goverment set up a commission that accused Kutor of environmental damage. According to Isakbek Torgoyev, the chairman of the national academy of sciences, the Davydov Glacier had held more than 780 million cubic metres, or billions of litres, of fresh water. The losses incurred by Kyrgyzstan – based on what the country could have earned from selling the water were calculated at $5 billion. A reimbursement is unlikely, however: the country does not yet have any institutionalized methodology for assessing damage to glaciers. Evgeny Pechurin, Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan
Age: I’d like to be 15 forever! I’m at the point in my life when I can say I have been 15 twice. Town and country: I live in one of the most beautiful corners of the world – Tajikistan, where there is the still-green city of Dushanbe. Who do you live with? With my husband Oleg, who supports me in all my endeavours, and two wonderful children, Anastasia and Nikita. Nationality and citizenship: I was born a citizen of as great a country as the Soviet Union. But later someone decided I should be a citizen of Tajikistan. Identity: I have never worried about the question of my identity. Maybe today I’m a Dushanbe-ite with a Slavic appearance and an Eastern mentality. Why are you interested in water issues? From childhood I was told that there is a lot of water in Tajikistan. When I got older, I realized all that is relative. And in the light of recent events around water in Central Asia, a lot of questions and arguments have arisen. I wanted to understand what was going on. What does the world think about your country? When you talk to people about Tajikistan, they usually associate it with Afghan drugs and migrant workers. But there are a lot of good things about my country – if you want to know about the wonders of Tajikistan you need to visit, and not listen to horror stories about it. If I hadn’t been a journalist, I’d have been... I can say with confidence I wouldn’t have been a ballerina or a cosmonaut.
Photo: Waldemar Salesski
These yurts have just been put up for tourists on Song Kol Lake
Age: According to my passport I am already 30 and a bit, but I suspect the documents are lying, because I feel 23 and not a day older. Town and Country: I’ve lived in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, for more than 20 years, but I’m ethnically Russian. It’s here I learnt to be a journalist, then an economist, and I now work as an economics columnist for a newsagency and bring up my two sons. What does the world think about your country? People either know nothing about Kyrgyzstan, or associate it with looting and the two revolutions which took place in 2005 and 2010. Actually, it is a wonderful land of mountain peaks, crystal clear lakes, delicious fruit, crisp air, and spiritual and friendly people. If I hadn’t been a journalist, I’d have been... I’m glad that I became a journalist, it is what I wanted to do my whole life. Sometimes I wonder how my life would have developed if I hadn’t been a journalist. Since I love to do things with my hands, turning everyday objects into something exclusively hand-made, I think I would have been a designer.
Photo: Waldemar Salesski
An empty reservoir of Toktogul Dam in central Kyrgyzstan
Photo: Waldemar Salesski
Encounter in Arslanbob, a small town near Osh, Kyrgyzstan
Photo: Waldemar Salesski
“Palace of Peace and Reconciliation” built by star architect Sir Norman Foster in Astana, Kazakhstan’s new capital city
Photo: Waldemar Salesski
Kapchagay Reservoir, Altyn-Emel National Park, Kazakhstan. Since fishing is prohibited in the park, this fisherwoman is hoping for a quick haul
Photo: Waldemar Salesski
Tian Shan, a large system of mountain ranges, lies in the border region of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and China
Water from the Tap Problems with drinking water in Uzbekistan Today many rural families in Uzbekistan live in modern houses, with gas, electricity, and running water. But guaranteeing water supplies remains a serious problem, and the impact of climate change is only making it more pressing
Water on the shores of the Aral Sea
Photo: Nargis Kosimova
usup Kamalov, one of Uzbekistan’s leading environmentalists and director of the Union for the Protection of the Amu Darya and Aral, lives in Karakalpakstan, an autonomous republic on the shores of the Aral Sea in north-western Uzbekistan. It should not be difficult to get a drink here – his home, 1,255 kilometres from the capital Tashkent, stands on the lower reaches of the Amu Darya River, one of the two great rivers of Central Asia. But the retreat of the Aral Sea means Karakalpakstan has some of the worst quality drinking water in the country. “Statistically, 80 percent of Karakalpakstan’s population have access to drinking water. But this figure doesn’t match reality – most people drink ground water from hand pumps, which only mechanically filter impurities like sand and other rubbish out of the water. They do not remove heavy metals and other elements dangerous to human health,” says Yusup. Research by Médicins Sans Frontières has found consistent bacterial contamination in Karakalpakstan’s water – and in turn in practically every local food product, from eggs and milk to meat, fruit, and vegetables. Because removing organic contaminants is not a standard part of the water purification procedure at water processing stations, levels of the contaminants are consistently 10 times above acceptable limits. Environmentalists believe that the only solution left to the region is to create a culture of water use and consumption amongst the population in which all water goes through natural filtering processes like freezing or evaporation. While drinking water remains a serious problem in Karakalpakstan and the other Aral Sea regions, elsewhere in Uzbekistan the situation is improving. Far to the east, at the other end of the country, lives 33-year-old Kakhramon Shukurov. Born and raised in the ancient silk-road city of Jizzakh, where there has always been a shortage of drinking water, he and his wife Khurshida now live in a small village in the Jizzakh region with their son Davronbek, 7, and daughter Madinabona, 6. “In 2011 we moved to a new house, with all the modcons and equipment for a normal life. The only thing, just as everywhere else, is that in our region water supplies are irregular. But the main problems are the supply
system – it’s outdated, the supply system in the region needs immediate replacement – and the irrational use of drinking water by the public,” says Kakhramon. At the time of writing, the average price of one cubic metre of water in Uzbekistan was 180 Uzbek soms (about $0.87) – slightly lower than the true costs of supplying drinking water to the population. But those subsidised prices are something easily abused, says Parra Shukurov, a spokesman for the Jizzakh region branch of Suvokova, the state-owned utilities company which supplies drinking water to the people of Uzbekistan. The low price of water means those who have them use drinking water on their gardens or to wash the streets, and even residents of multi-storey apartment buildings can leave the taps running to cool melons and watermelons before eating them, or fail to pay attention to plumbing faults that leave fresh drinking water running straight into the sewage pipe. And even with these artificially low tariffs, Suvokova’s regional and city branches are still owed a great of money in unpaid water bills. At the beginning of 2013 the Asian Development Bank launched a three-year project to improve water supplies in several districts of the Jizzakh region, which is home to around 200,000 people. The idea is that renewing the water delivery systems will not only provide local residents with clean water, but raise levels of sanitary hygiene and improve conditions at rural medical facilities.
Kakhramon Shukurov and his wife Khurshida say: “Just as everywhere else, in our region water supplies are irregular” 55
Water on the Steppe
For centuries the area around Guliston was left unIn the neighbouring Syr Darya region, a largely de- populated, shunned by humans for its lack of water and sert province whose territory is mostly taken up by the the salinity of its soil. That changed with the arrival of irMirzachol plain – the so-called “Starving Steppe” – other rigation canals and land-development projects, and today water projects are underway. it is one of Uzbekistan’s most important cotton growing “I was born and raised in the Sardoba district of Syr regions. As the region developed, its population grew – Darya region, where only 20 percent of the population Guliston is now home to around 100,000 people. But its have guaranteed access to drinking water,” says Dilfuza old water supply system is not longer fit for purpose, and Zharbekova, the chief editor of Salomatlik Sandigi, a like the rest of the Syr Darya region the outstanding debt newspaper. “We might be in the 21st century now, but the owed by the city’s consumers to the water company (4 people of Sardoba still use water from the canals and billion soms, about $1.8 million) is a crippling hindrance waste water, spreading dangerous infections with terrible to investment in new infrastructure. consequences for the skin and gastro-intestinal tract. In In April 2013, USAID launched an Initiative for Lothe past water was piped in from the Zaaminsk Moun- cal Development in Uzbekistan that provided the outlytains. But in the past 10 years the pipes have all decayed. ing areas of Guliston district with pipes to deliver clean I now live in [regional capital] Guliston. Water supplies drinking water to 600 residents. Other, state-funded, in town are a bit better than in the villages. The delivery programs to improve drinking water provision are also system fails quite a lot, but at least the quality of the water underway around the city. is monitored.” In Uzbekistan, as in all of Central Asia, the question Today, the Syr Darya region is home to more than of drinking water remains one of the greatest challenges 780,000 people. But about 913 kilometres of its water pipe- facing the public and the government. But with the help lines are unfit for use and 27 water intake structures are of funding from international organizations, the governin need of repair. The government has already announced ment is tackling the problem. In several regions, cleana full-scale recovery and repair program that should be water projects are already having a tangible impact on finished by 2020. If everything goes to plan, 100 percent the everyday existence of thousands of people, making a of residents in towns and 90 percent in rural villages major contribution to the health system, and raising the should have access to centralized water supplies in seven quality of life for both urban and rural residents. years. But it all depends on money: consumers in the region owed the regional branch of Suvokova more than 4.5 Nargis Kosimova, Tashkent, Uzbekistan billion soms (about $22 million) in unpaid bills as of May 1, 2013. The water company, in turn, owes its employees 300 million soms in unpaid wages. Another project, this time funded by the World Bank, is trying to modernize the drinking water system in 155 towns and villages across the Syr Darya region. The bank has put up an $88 million loan to fund the effort, while the Uzbek government plans to contribute $12 million.
Joint Solutions The regional capital of Guliston stands on the left banks of the Syr Darya River where it leaves the Fergana Valley in eastern Uzbekistan. Though just 118 kilometres from the capital Tashkent, it too suffers from the water supply problems afflicting the rest of the region.
Age: I feel like I’m 25, but unfortunately I’m 44. So I’ve been afraid to look in the mirror for a while. Town and country: I live in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. Who do you live with? My children – my son Temur, 15, and daughter Sarvinoz, 17. Nationality and citizenship: Citizen of the Republic of Uzbekistan. The nationality on my passport says Uzbek. Why are you interested in water issues? Water is the foundation of life and the shortage of water in Uzbekistan is felt acutely. Rationalizing water use and protecting it gives my country a chance of continued prosperity. Also, as a journalist, I hope to make my own contribution to solving this problem. What was your most interesting or surprising experience with water? I was born in Jizzakh, and ever since I was small we would drag water home in buckets from a source half a kilometre from the house. Water is still available there once a day, and anyone who can collects it in any possible container. When I moved to Tashkent, I was surprised to find that in the capital they don’t turn off the cold water – but I still collected water in plastic bottles and buckets just in case. I kept them for a week until I realized that they weren’t going to turn the water off, and then I poured them away. If I hadn’t been a journalist, I’d have... followed my childhood dream and become a vet.
Hydroelectric Diplomacy Power-starved Central Asian countries are gambling on hydropower projects on some of the region’s most important rivers By 2030 Kyrgyzstan plans to build its largest hydroelectric power plant to date on the Naryn River. But the mountainous republic’s neighbours view the plans with suspicion, fearing an impact on crucial water supplies for agriculture and people
oviet engineers first floated the idea of a massive Cascade, provide almost all of Kyrgyzstan’s energy and, new dam on the Naryn in 1989, but with the col- when waters are high enough, even produce surplus eleclapse of the Soviet Union two years later the plans tricity for export. were shelved – the vast project was simply beyond the K-1 was planned as the jewel in the crown of this sysmeans of the newly independent Kyrgyzstan. Now, with tem: occupying the highest level in the cascade, it will financial backing from investors including Russia, the have a capacity of 1,900 MW and an average annual enproject is finally ready to go ahead. ergy production of 5,088 billion kWh. For Kyrgyzstan, the new dam – the Kambaratinskaya-1 At 275 metres, K-1 will be the third-tallest hydroelechydroelectric plant, or K-1, to give it its full name – is not tric dam in the entire former Soviet Union. Building the only a solution to the chronic domestic energy shortages reservoir will involve detonating an estimated 247,000 that have plagued the country for years, but also an op- tons of ammonium nitrate and diesel fuel. portunity to profit from selling electricity to Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Naryn River, on which K-1 will be built, is the largest in Kyrgyzstan and one of the main tributaries of the Syr Darya – one of the two great rivers of Central Asia and a crucial source of water for several countries. Flowing through mountainous terrain, the Naryn falls three kilometres from its source to where it merges with the Kara Darya to form the Syr Darya in Uzbekistan, having massive hydroelectric potential – 36.5 billion kilowatt hours (kWh) a year. There are already five Sovietera hydroelectric plants on the river: The Toktogulskaya, Kurpsaiskaya, Tashkumyrskaya, Shamaldysaiskaya, and Uchkurganskaya dams, making up the so-called Narynsk 58
The plans for the Kambaratinskaya hydropower plant were worked out during the Soviet era
one of the key domestic, foreign policy, and economic questions facing Central Asian states today, and K-1 is not the only hydroelectric project to raise tensions in the region – Tajikistan’s planned Rogun Dam has provoked similar disagreement. “Whoever controls hydroelectricity, controls our re“Whoever controls gion,” says Ravshan Zheenbekov, a member of the Kyrgyz hydroelectricity, controls parliament and former presidential candidate. That said, our region” he is sceptical of the hype surrounding K-1, describing its supposed benefits as illusory and unrealistic. Critics of the project have described the dam as a disaster waiting to happen, warning that a single strucThe thinking behind the project is that K-1 will help tural failure would see whole regions of the country and Kyrgyzstan escape an era of chronic energy shortages neighbouring republics being flooded. and strengthen the country’s energy security. The criThe nightmare scenario is a repeat of the 2009 disassis of 2009, when the country was blighted by so many ter at Russia’s Sayano Sushenskaya Dam, which killed blackouts the then-president Kurmanbek Bakiyev went 75 people and caused 7.3 billion rubles of damage. on live television to advise citizens to “collect dung” to The prospect of a similar tragedy in Central Asia has burn for heat and light, is still fresh in the national mem- been seized on by opponents as a reason to scrap the K-1 ory (Bakiyev was overthrown in a popular uprising a year project – but they have also tried to argue for attractive later). All of that was the result of a water shortage that alternatives. Experts from Uzbekistan, for example, have left the country’s hydro plants unable to meet demand. urged the Kyrgyz government to focus their efforts on And it was in the wake of this disaster that the decision building several smaller power plants instead. was taken to build K-1. If nothing else is clear, it is certain that the sides need But the decision to build the largest hydroelectric to come to the negotiating table and try to decide the plant in the region has provoked concern amongst Kyr- future of the region together. gyzstan’s downriver neighbours, who fear for their own water security. Securing water supplies is fast becoming Iren Saakyan-Ovsepyan, Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan 59
“There is no one solution to the problem” Iren Saakyan-Ovsepyan spoke to Ernest Karybekov, one of the leaders of the Institute for Research of Water use and Hydroelectric Resources
Do we need to build another hydro plant in Kyrgyzstan?
There’s not much point in abandoning the construc-
tion now. But it should be understood that water always has been, is, and will be the main factor in [energy] production in Central Asia. It’s impossible to overestimate the importance of water in the region. In practice, however, water and energy tend to find themselves on opposite sides of the barricades. And it is precisely because of this contradiction that the Aral Sea has dried up and Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are suffering from energy shortages. Everything is left to chance. As a result, we’re not far from the day when Kazakhstan walks out of parallel work with the other countries of the region altogether. And that will be a disaster. How can disputes about water be avoided?
Is there a market for power from the new hydroelectric plant? The cost of one kilowatt in Kyrgyzstan is currently about 1.5 cents. Electricity produced by K-1 will be several times more expensive, somewhere in the region of 6 cents a kilowatt. It’s difficult to imagine that such expensive energy will be bought in Kyrgyzstan. Most likely it will be exported. However, it’s not clear that the export market will swallow such a price either. That’s still an open question. In that case, maybe it would make more sense to build wind turbines and other alternative energy sources? Our neighbours are already looking into that. Solar plants and wind farms are gradually entering the regional market. In Kazakhstan, for example, they’re already into these projects in a big way. In Kyrgyzstan alternative energy is mostly being adopted by private energy consumers. Specialist firms and companies are designing and installing micro-solar stations, mostly using panels and solar cells produced in China. And what’s more, they’re also building mini-hydro plants. There’s one other option, too – instead a new hydroelectric plant, build a traditional thermal power plant, perhaps using coal from the Kara-Keche coal fields. But that raises other environmental questions. There is no one solution to the problem. The only thing that’s clear is that we need to reach agreement and act in unison.
You can even break a flat-iron if you use it as a hammer. Anything, however simple, comes with instructions on how to use it properly. So you can’t just divide up an energy system. These things are built out of complementary, interchangeable units. Frankly, every country in the loop needs to understand this, especially Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Tomorrow this violation of the “rules of use” could affect everyone: Uzbekistan, because if there is not enough water in the Toktogul Reservoir in Kyrgyzstan irrigation in Uzbekistan’s cotton fields will suffer, inflicting massive financial losses on the country; Tajikistan, because if we cannot provide enough electricity in winter the energy deficit there could soon Iren Saakyan-Ovsepyan, Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan reach 1,000 to 1,200 megawatts; and Kazakhstan, because without irrigation water from Toktogul its rice and wheat fields will die.
Town and country: I live in the Kyrgyz capital city of Bishkek. I was born and raised in Yerevan, Armenia. Who do you live with? I live with my husband and two beautiful daughters. My family, my daughters Anait and Meri, are the meaning of my life. Nationality and citizenship: I’m currently a citizen of Kyrgyzstan, living in two countries – Kyrgyzstan and Armenia. I consider myself a Kyrgyz-ized Armenian. Why are you interested in water issues? There has been much discussion of the problem of trans-border rivers in Central Asia recently. Besides which, experts from across the region are spending more and more time trying to answer the following question: is water is a commodity, or a gift from God? What was your most interesting or surprising experience with water? The most surprising experience with water was when my upstairs neighbours flooded our flat. It turned out the elderly grandfather had decided to thaw a chicken in the sink, put it under the tap and forgotten about it. What does the world think of your country? I don’t think the world knows anything about Kyrgyzstan. The US Secretary of State John Kerry recently called it “Kyrzakhstan”. If a top official doesn’t know it, what can you expect from others? If I hadn’t been a journalist... I would still be a journalist. Journalism isn’t a profession – it’s a way of life.
Issyk Kul Pushed to Its Limits Hot Environmental Problems of the Warm Lake
Human activity is posing a greater and greater threat to the second clearest lake in the world â€“ Issyk Kul in Kyrgyzstan. The lake has survived Soviet tampering with the ecosystem, poaching, and a lack of water treatment purification plants â€“ but how
Fishermen at Issyk Kul 62
Photo: Evgeny Pechurin
much longer will the lake retain the strength to fight off these external threats?
he road to Issyk Kul (the name means “warm lake” bracing themselves for the unpleasant task of removing – even in the coldest winters it never freezes) leads several names from the list of Issyk Kul’s fauna. The fatal over the high mountain pass at Barskoon. In the mistake, they believe, was the decision of their Sovietlate 19th century it took the Russian explorer Nikolai Pr- era predecessors over 60 years ago to release foreign zhevalsky almost a week and a half to cross it on foot. predators into the lake. The introduced pike and bream Today, the journey from the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek to turned out to spawn in the same places as the chebak, Issyk Kul takes just three hours on the Soviet-built road producing a competition that the indigenous species are over the pass. You can even take the train: the Bishkek to rapidly losing. Balykchy express runs three times a week on the railway “They introduced species that were considered more parallel to the road. commercially valuable,” says Akylbek Ryspayev, a reBalykchy is the first of the lakeside settlements that search fellow at the Kyrgyz Academy of Science’s Institourists pass through on their way to the guest houses tute of Biology and Soil. and hotels that now throng Issyk Kul’s shores. There is no doubt about this place’s historic industry: “Balyk” comes “In order to survive the from the Kyrgyz word for “fish” (the town was once predators have to named Rybache, derived from the Russian word for fish, eat each other” but was renamed after independence in the early 1990s). Today, however, the fishing village is not at its best. To understand why, it is enough to visit the fish market, which A moratorium on fishing imposed in 2008 also played has worked for decades at the entrance to the town. Instead of fish, the stone slabs are laid with sweets, cheap into the hands of the invaders. There was no one to arChinese goods, and local craftwork intended for tourists. tificially control their population. Scientists recently noAsyel – a matronly woman in a bright dress and ticed that the pike and bream are not growing to their full headscarf – is one of a handful of traders still selling fish. size – a sign of a shortage of food, which means small Amongst the more familiar species lying on her stall is fish, which in this case means the chebachok in the lake Leucisus bergi Kashkarov – the Issyk Kul dace, known are finished. “In order to survive the predators have to eat to the locals as “chebak” or “chebachok.” “Take it without each other,” explains Ryspayev. Cannibalism is just one regret, the poachers caught it at night,” Asyel whispers to of the new phenomenon zoologists have encountered on potential customers. A bunch of five fish no longer than Issyk Kul. If the process is allowed to continue to its a human hand costs $4. By local standards, that is a lot of logical conclusion, in several years the lake could be commoney – enough to buy 12 loaves of bread at the neigh- pletely empty of fish. Making for shore, the propeller of the scientists’ mobouring stall. To hold this symbol of Issyk Kul in your hands takes a tor launch becomes tangled in something: poacher’s nets. rare stroke of luck these days. 30 years ago, enough che- Five years into the fishing moratorium, it is easy to see bak swarmed in the lake to make it an industrial species. the problem hasn’t gone away: it has simply morphed Today, conservationists are struggling to save it from ex- into another episode of the perpetual and universal continction. A year ago scientific work resumed on the lake flict between poachers and game keepers, or in this case, after a 12-year break thanks to a donation from the Glob- Fisheries Inspectors. The nets the launch encountered on al Environmental Facility. In an attempt to draw attention this trip were cheap Chinese things that the environmento the lake’s problems, the scientists doggedly hunt out talists have been trying to have banned in Kyrgyzstan for journalists. I was invited on an expedition on a research several years. They are regularly abandoned by poachers panicking at the approach of Fishing Inspectors, and the boat belonging to the Kyrgyzstan Academy of Sciences. Above all, zoologists are trying to work out what is liv- sunken nets then drift about the lake killing fish and even ing in the lake, and in what numbers. And they are already water fowl indiscriminately. 63
houses on the shore had water treatment facilities. The others either used the services of vacuum trucks, or more often simply filled in their pit latrines at the end of the season. Sewage Works Experts from the Aleyne, one of Kyrgyzstan’s largest Historically, most of the guest houses on Issyk Kul environmental NGOs, estimate that in 2010 up to 35,000 have been built on the north shore. Until the beginning of cubic metres of fluid waste was flowing into the lake every the 20th century it took a great effort just to get to the wa- day. That is equivalent to more than 12 million cubic meter. Dense thickets of sea buckthorn and barberry served tres a year. At the start of the summer in 2013 the Kyrgyz as a natural filter for the lake. Today they have almost health authorities shut down six guest houses for violaall been destroyed, and the shore zone is crowded with tions of environmental standards. And to compound the buildings. The exact number of guesthouses on the lake problem, the household and municipal waste entering varies depending on which statistics you look at, but what the lake is not simply organic human waste – it also inis certain is that in summer dozens of legal and not-so- cludes a wide variety of pollutants including synthetic delegal mini hotels pop up in every village along the shore. tergents which do not biodegrade. “Combined, they are Their affordability makes them popular with the Kyrgyz very dangerous for any living thing, and a portion of them holiday makers: a two bed room with “conveniences” in will not leave the body once ingested,” says medical officer the yard and a common shower will set you back just Nina Vashneva. seven dollars a night (though additional “options,” like a fridge or a TV will cost you more). Russians, Kazakhs, and other foreign tourists who flock here in summer tend “The physical beauty and to favour the more up-market hotels, where rooms start environmental condition of from around $80 a night. the lake are deteriorating. The tourists on the beach look on with surprise as a Today they are building women in a white coat walks the shore with plastic samhouses within 50 metres of pling bottles. But Olga Shestova, senior researcher at the the shore; in Soviet times Issyk Kul Region Department for Environmental Protecbuildings were placed at tion and Ecosystem Development, is already accustomed to the strange looks she gets. “Issyk Kul is considered the least 200 metres from second clearest lake in the world after Baikal,” she says. the water” In Soviet times, and perhaps even long before that, a tradition arose for visitors to Issyk Kul to bring home a bottle of the lake’s supposedly remedial water. Issyk Kul’s At the processing facilities of one of the elite Sovietsalty water was used for washing, gargling away a sore era sanatoriums, a nasty-looking grey slush flows noisthroat, and even made into a compress. But anyone trying to cure a sore throat with that water ily from a pipe. After passing through several filters the today would be lucky to get away with just an upset stom- water is clear again, though the terrible smell has in no ach and a cold. Water samples from the lake, especially way diminished. The workers here take pride in the hisnear popular holiday spots, are showing increasing levels tory of the facility – it is 33 years old this year. But today it is overloaded. Rather than building their own facilities, of toxic substances. The government made it illegal for any guest house to nearby guest houses have simply hooked up to this one. operate without a water treatment facility in 2003, and The possibility of building a new facility is not even under the ban was formalized six years later in a law “on sustain- discussion – it is simply too expensive. But what if there were no technology at all, either new able development of environmental-economic systems in Issyk Kul.” But as often happens, the requirements of the or old? The processing facilities of Cholpon-Ata, the larglaw are enforced selectively. In 2009, only 14 of 200 guest est resort town in the area, look like something off the 64
Photo: Waldemar Salesski
set of a war film, or perhaps the site of the Chernobyl The first researcher to work on the lake, the Russian disaster. Officially, however, they work, and the tens of traveler Peter Semyonov-Tyan-Shansky, wrote of Issyk large guest houses who have their waste pumped here are Kul in his diary in 1873: “The dark-blue surface of the walegally considered to be fulfilling the demands of the law. ter with its sapphire colour could easily compete with the The local villagers take waste from septic tanks for ir- blue of Lake Geneva.” He would barely recognize the lake rigation. The farmers are happy: the fields don’t need fer- today. That Issyk Kul has not yet turned into a massive tilizing, and the harvest comes on in leaps and bounds. swamp is down only to the lake’s remarkable resilience. What substances are accumulating in these fruits and But experts believe Issyk Kul’s natural cleaning mechavegetables is anyone’s guess. Environmental scientists are nism can handle only two million tourists a year. The sure of only one thing: along with waste from the sewer summer of 2012, the lake’s busiest in a decade, came very system, everything sooner or later ends up in the lake. close to passing this point of no return. And in an undrained basin like Issyk Kul, that cannot be a good thing. Evgeny Pechurin, Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan “The physical beauty and environmental condition of the lake are deteriorating. Today they are building houses within 50 metres of the shore; in Soviet times buildings were placed at least 200 metres from the water,” says Dr. Emil Shukurov, a geographer.
The construction of a yurt tourist settlement on the Issyk Kul coast
Photo: Waldemar Salesski
Song Kol Lake in Kyrgyzstan lies at a height of around 3,000 metres. The lake basinâ€™s mean temperature is only -3.5 degrees Celsius
Age: 29 Town and country: Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. Who do you live with? With my girlfriend Alena. Nationality and citizenship: Kyrgyz Republic, ethnic Russian. Identity: Television man. Why are you interested in water issues? I specialize in environmental journalism. What was your most interesting or surprising experience with water? An attempt to swim in a glacial lake, which ended in complete failure. What does the world think of your country? I think the impression is not very good. Political instability and poverty are the first things people associate with the word Kyrgyzstan. But if you think about it a little longer other things come to mind: magnificent countryside, warm people, and ancient traditions. If I hadnâ€™t been a journalist, Iâ€™d have been... maybe a lawyer.
DROP BY DROP Water‑saving new technology in Central Asia
Uzbek farmers have traditionally relied on a system of canals and irrigation ditches to bring water to their crops; but with water increasingly scarce, many are turning to new drip technology
In a greenhouse with the drip irrigation system
First Time in the Fergana Valley
Photo: Natalya Shulepina
o get to the Fergana Valley you have to cross the Kamchik Pass. The air is thin up here, and close to the snowfields are bright green slopes. Fergana Valley looks like a pear, cut in two by the Syr Darya River and its tributaries, and crisscrossed by the irrigation canals branching off them. Descending from the pass into the valley, the first thing you notice is the edge of the pear – the empty steppe where no water reaches. The scarcity of water in the summer heat is palpable, even this close to the region’s main water artery. When Abdulvokhid Boltaboyev decided to set up a The yields from the land plots on the old river bed in drip irrigation system on his farm, his neighbours were the Uichinsky district of the Namangan region are not sceptical. Most people here are accustomed to using wa- great. The river changed course long ago. But although ter carried by a system of irrigation ditches and chan- the local farmers who divided up the former floodplain nels from a nearby canal. But tradition has its drawbacks: gathered and removed the stones from the dry river bed, when the ground is waterlogged, ground water rises car- the quality of the land remains poor. rying salt. At the height of summer the supply of water is “It is not a place worth experimenting with,” the neighgreatly reduced, and the fields at the further end of the ir- bours said. But Abdulvokhid thought differently. In 2009 rigation systems go unwatered. The deficit has started to he began to experiment with two different systems of cause tensions, with neighbours surreptitiously siphon- drip irrigation on five hectares of cotton fields, and that ing off one another’s supplies. As a result, the “battle for autumn he gathered 38 quintals of cotton per hectare. the harvest” ends with modest results. His neighbours brought in a maximum of 20.
After gathering the harvest, Abdulvokhid went to China study that country’s experience with drip irrigation. In the end, he decided not only to use the system on his own land, but to set up his own business producing the systems in Uzbekistan. He took out a $92,000 bank loan to buy the equipment from China he needed to start production, and sought further support from the Global Environment Facility’s local branch in Tashkent. The GEF launched a small grants program in Uzbekistan in 2008, and it already supports more than 50 projects dealing with biodiversity, climate change adaptation, and land degradation. Like all applicants, Abdulvokhid was expected to put his own finances into the project too: the fund will only provide co-financing, covering no more than 50 percent of the costs of a project. When Abdulvokhid invited experts from the GEF grants program to see drip irrigation working on his fields, they came away impressed. They found that he’d achieved significant savings in water and fertilisers and halved his average electricity consumption. Thus the GEF launched a three year project called “Drip Irrigation in the Fergana Valley.” Abdulvokhid got a $50,000 grant to start production and buy raw materials. His contribution was equipment and a commitment to provide one hectare’s worth of drip irrigation free of charge to 20 farmers across the republic. In 2012, Abdulvokhid started production.
Greenhouses on the Hills Along the northern channel of the Namangan Canal, pumps steadily push water up to the hilly adyrs. The adyrs are the foothills of the Fergana Valley, made up of the degraded material of the mountains. Although watering land on the adyrs via irrigation ditches takes a great deal of water, the fields are still for the most part irrigated in the traditional way. The landscape is a patchwork of verdant hillsides painted with green wheat fields and brown arable land, a vineyard here, an orchard there. In one of these orchards, says Abdulvokhid, his father introduced drip irrigation to Uzbekistan for the first time when he used nails to drive holes into a hose in 1968. By attaching buttons in a cunning arrangement, the story goes, he was able to let water drip under the trees. But there was little demand for drip irrigation in Soviet times. Water was plentiful, and the Toktogul Reservoir
upstream in Kyrgyzstan provided all the irrigation anyone needed. All the water that accumulated over the winter flowed to the fields in summer. “When the Soviet Union collapsed, much changed. I got myself 70 hectares and became a farmer. But I found that when the crops needed water, there simply wasn’t enough. That’s when I remembered what my father had told me about drip irrigation,” recalls Abdulvokhid. Amongst the first to decide to try out drip irrigation on the adyrs and turn to Abdulvokhid for advice was Nosirzhon Saifullayev, who farms two hectares with onions, an orchard and a melon field. His hillside smallholding can now be easily identified by the two white plastic polytunnels, each at least 50 metres long.
“I’ve filled the barrel with five tons of water for insurance. My water consumption is lower now – it would be difficult to use any less. I dream of using drip irrigation on the whole farm”
Nosirzhon started putting up the first of these greenhouses for vegetables last year. For the first three days he watered them through holes in the roofing material, but the water did not reach the back rows. It was at this point Abdulvokhid suggested he join the drip irrigation project. Together they calculated the cost of installation, and put in the system in the spring. The system is pretty simple: water is pumped from an irrigation ditch into a barrel at the top of the property, and gravity does the rest, guiding the water down tubes to the crops. Nosirzhon wants to add another greenhouse, and he will plant his next crop in September, so he will be able to harvest tomatoes and cucumbers by New Year. “I’ve filled the barrel with five tons of water for insurance. My water consumption is lower now – it would be difficult to use any less. I dream of using drip irrigation on the whole farm,” he says. The GEF’s experts have confirmed the impressive water savings that can be made when irrigation is delivered drop by drop. According to Alexei Blokov, the head of the 69
grants program in Uzbekistan, almost all the water reaches seedlings’ roots. “It is nearly 90 percent efficient. You can supply it from any local water source – springs, rivers, lakes. It cuts losses to evaporation during transportation from the source to crops. The system is very simple to use and cheap to install and service,” he says.
Natalya Shulepina, Tashkent, Uzbekistan
Photo: Natalya Shulepina
Abdulvokhid, Nosirzhon, and many other farmers have already proved the potential of micro-irrigation, and the Uzbek government has taken notice. In the summer of 2013 the government passed a resolution to support the adoption of the technology, including financing installation of drip irrigation systems and other water saving technology. The plan is for drip irrigation to be introduced to all areas suffering from chronic water shortages, as well as land where the topography makes delivering water expensive. Priority will be given to orchards, vineyards, melon fields, and other high-profit crops. Some calculations suggest the new technology could save an average of 65 percent of the water currently used on cotton production and 54 percent of that used on fruit and vegetable cultivation, while at the same time increasing yields. Incentives already on the table include a special credit line by the Ministry of Finance’s land reclamation fund offering famers preferential-rate three year loans of up to $28,000, and the opportunity to use the volume of water they save on other fields. Other measures in the pipeline include exemptions from land tax and support for buying polytunnels. Drip irrigation supplied water to just 1,400 hectares of agricultural land in Uzbekistan in 2013, and is set to grow to 25,000 hectares by 2018. That is still only a fraction of the more than 3.5 million hectares of farmland in the country. But with water shortages and the pressures of climate change getting worse with each year, drip irrigation in Uzbekistan is promising, economically attractive, The adyrs in the Namangan region and environmentally friendly.
Town and country: I was born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, but spent my early childhood in Leningrad. I grew up and studied in Alma-Ata (now Almaty), Kazakhstan. I graduated in history and worked as a historian for five years before returning to Tashkent, where I now live. Nationality and citizenship: Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, I have been a citizen of Uzbekistan. Why are you interested in water issues? In Tashkent I found the job I had always dreamed of in journalism. I worked in a news agency covering economic affairs, which turned out to be closely entwined with environmental issues. I initially covered water pollution, avoiding questions connected with irrigation and the drying up of the Aral Sea. But eventually the topic of water, including irrigation and water supply, became one of the most important. What was your most interesting or surprising experience with water? In 2008, I joined an expedition of seismologists searching for oil and gas on the Aral. We crossed the western Aral on a boat then came to various areas of exposed sea bed. On the final stage of the expedition we took to marsh buggies to cross the eastern Aral, which is now a swamp. I made a documentary film about the trip. If I hadn’t become a journalist I’d have been... I’ve dabbled in other professions, and I know journalism is my calling.
The help of international organizations in Kyrgyzstan does not always reach those it is intended for Massive flows of international grants and donor
assistance programs often end up in the hands of corrupt bureaucrats, and have little impact on the lives of those they are meant to help, says Bishkekbased journalist Iren Saakyan-Ovsepyan
ast summer the potatoes were so tiny it drove us to tears,” recalls Antonina Polikarpovna, a resident of a small village in Kyrgyzstan. “I watered them from a cup, gathering every last drop of water...the animals were mad with thirst. There was a well, just one for the whole village, but someone threw a dead cat in it and spoiled the water. The cattle had nothing to drink... and winter was no better. Now we only get water three hours a day, and it barely drips – it is hardly enough to fill a bucket.” While Antonina and thousands like her waited for The subsequent investigation was proof, if any were water, Kyrgyz bureaucrats were dividing up money do- needed, that happy endings happen only in fairy tales and nated for the purpose by the World Bank and the Asian Hollywood films, and harsh reality follows just one step Development Bank. behind good intentions. The deputies found that more International donors, inspired by the goal of bringing than $52 million of the grant money was simply stolen. clean drinking water to 1,500 towns and villages in Kyr- Donors halted their financial projects, and the prospect gyzstan, had pumped almost $70 million into an infra- of any further funding vanished like a ghost. The only structure development program called “Taza Suu” (“Pure thing that is clear now is that nothing good will come of Spring”). Little of that money reached the residents of the current situation: the ones who suffer are ordinary those villages, and for some reason the country’s water people who are still waiting for clean water. supplies barely improved at all. Today, the General Prosecutor’s office is still trying to Several fraudsters involved became millionaires, work out where these millions went and who is responhowever. And after local media began to cover the sible for turning a drinking water project into a detective fraud, the case attracted the attention of deputies in the story. How, for example, was a wrench bought for the Zhogorku Kenesh, the Krygyz parliament. A full parlia- price of a car? It cannot be ruled out that there are magimentary session was devoted to corruption in just such cians amongst local officials and representatives of Comdonor programs, and the Taza Suu scandal became one munity Water Consumers’ Associations who can simply of the most controversial events in Kyrgyzstan. turn a nail into a water pipe. 72
Even tractors bought with grant money ended up as private property. The entire situation is like the beginning of Anna Karenina. “Everything was in confusion in the Oblonskys’ house,” except in Tolstoy’s classic it was a domestic drama, while the current mess revolves around a profitable slice of the pie that is a donor’s grant. Logically, it should not be difficult to trace: if something decreases somewhere, it means it must increase somewhere else. Yet not even Prime Minister Zhantoro Satybaldiyev knows where to look for the missing money. “Everyone who was involved in these machinations will be brought to justice,” the premier promised when he entered office in September 2012. “It turns out that in several regions water pipes were laid where there was already access to clean water, in other places Taza Suu worked only on paper.” Even so, not all the projects launched under Taza Suu were complete failures. High quality water distribution facilities were built in the villages of Krasnaya Rechka and Sosnovka, both of which suffered from a serious shortage of drinking water just a few years ago. Grant money paid for laying three kilometres of water pipes and construction of a water inlet facility, a pumping station, and two wells. Unlike Antonina Polikarpova, the villagers consider the project a success. Here, at least, the work appears to have been carried out as transparently as possible. Some assistance programs do work. Azamat Akeleev, an independent expert who heads the public supervisory council at the Ministry of Finance, believes the most effective and flexible donor programs tend to be run by national governments rather than NGOs. Outfits like USAID, Japan’s JICA, and Germany’s GIZ are able to assist with switching to international accounting standards, implementing entrepreneurship projects, and improving the microfinance sector, he says. And several multigovernment donors, including the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the International Finance Corporation, have also made major contributions to the economy, especially the banking sector, he adds. “But projects on reforming government, automating sewage systems, healthcare, education and other social questions remain inefficient,” he says. “Especially inefficient projects are where corrupt mechanisms lie, where local officials are involved in decision making. Infrastructure projects like Taza Suu are typical of this.”
Meanwhile, the noose of external debt draws ever tighter around the republic’s neck. According to the most recent figures, Kyrgyzstan’s external debt to the international community now exceeds $3 billion. But when spending is already so irrational, the question arises: why take out huge loans? And where do these sums end up? In fact, a large share of these grants and loans is spent on the donors themselves in wages to foreign specialists, project managers, and other personnel. In other words, most of this money actually goes straight back to those who provided it. Many experts now believe that in its desperation to get out of its debt trap Kyrgyzstan made the mistake of biting on a hook deftly cast by international financial institutions. It is clearly naïve to think that the era of colonial conquest is over. Rather, it seems only the methods have changed. Where subjugating a country once required military might, a pen is now sufficient. Tens of third world countries are in the IMF’s pocket, and they have no way out – not even in theory. It must be remembered that the consequences of external debt are political and economic dependence. A global debate is now underway about whether the spread of this ever encroaching flood of dept is in fact the true goal of institutions like the World Bank and the IMF, or simply an unfortunate by product of inefficient local governments becoming accustomed to solving problems with borrowed cash. In answer, it is enough to note that these institutions are not charities. Handing out vast loans, international donors have more than once reduced national populations to poverty, devaluing national assets to rock-bottom prices before they themselves buy them up “for pennies.” Governments would be well advised to think twice – or better, a hundred times – before deciding whether to go into debt or get out of the shadow economy all together. After all, the price for our financial sins, unlike our moral ones, will not be extracted in the next world but this one. And it is Antonina Polikarpovna’s grandchildren who will be paying off the current bill. Iren Saakyan-Ovsepyan, Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan 73
Lake Balkhash – The Next Aral? Kazakhstan’s Lake Balkhash is under threat of drying up. The history of the Aral Sea is being repeated: on the other side of the border in China, dam after dam is being built on the rivers that feed Lake Balkhash, and each one takes more and more water
aves rebound off the hot concrete of the sea wall. Fishing cutters bob up and down on the water. At midday, the harbour of Kuigana is deserted but for two sunburnt teenagers splashing about in the water. Kuigan is a village of 1,800 people at the south-western end of Lake Balkhash in eastern Kazakhstan, on the delta of the Ili River, the lake’s biggest inflowing river. The village is crisscrossed by canals, overgrown with reeds. Every house has a boat: the village lives on the fishing trade.
For Fishermen, Balkhash Is an Ocean Kuigan’s four fishing cooperatives employ about 200 fishermen between them. Oleg is one of them. A tall man with piercing blue eyes set in a weather-beaten face, for him Balkhash is not just a lake. “We call it ‘the ocean’,” he says. “Storms here are the real thing, very dangerous.” Since the virtual disappearance of the Aral Sea, Lake Balkhash – a 600-kilometre slash in the Kazakh steppe – has become the largest lake in Kazakhstan. The bed of the Aral, once the fourth largest lake in the world, is now more than two-thirds desert. Today, the threat of a similar fate hangs over Lake Balkhash. 74
Between 1972 and 2001 Lake Balkhash shrank by 150 square kilometres – losing an area about the size of Potsdam. According to experts at the Kazakhstan Institute of Geography in Almaty, water levels fell by two metres in the decade between 1988 and 1998 alone.
“When these plans are realized, the flow of water from China to Kazakhstan will fall by two thirds”
Decades of Water Wasting One reason for the looming disaster is several decades of siphoning water off for irrigation. So much water has been diverted that several of the rivers that used to feed the lake now no longer reach it, petering out in the surrounding steppe and desert. It was just such longterm degradation that eventually caused the rivers that fed the Aral Sea to dry up. Irrigation is crucial for cotton
Photo: Edda Schlager
China is Thirsty
cultivation, one of the most important economic sectors Another factor is Kazakhstan’s giant eastern neighin Central Asia – but about 50 percent of the water diverted into primitive irrigation canals is lost to evapora- bour. The Ili River, which accounts for up to 80 percent of the water flowing into Lake Balkhash, begins on the bortion and leakage. Oleg, the fisherman from Kuigan, finds it impossible der with China’s Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, to imagine that Lake Balkhash itself could dry up. “No, where the Chinese are building numerous dams. Jakup Dostai, a hydrologist at the Kazakhstan Instithat’s impossible – you can see for yourself how much tute of Geography, watches this anxiously. “The Chinese water there is in the rivers this year!” he says. It is true that water levels in Lake Balkhash, which had are beginning economic development in the west of the reached their lowest levels at the beginning of the turn of country. There are oil and gas reserves there, but there’s a the century, have slowly started to rise again in the past shortage of water,” he says. About 30 dams and reservoirs decade. The glaciers in the Tian Shan Mountains, where are planned on 12 large rivers in Xinjiang, including the the Ili River begins, are melting rapidly under the influ- Ili. “When these plans are realized, the flow of water from ence of global climate change, and fish are once again China to Kazakhstan will fall by two thirds,” says Dostai. spawning again in the rivers and Lake Balkhash itself. All this has led many journalists and politicians to the erroneous and short-sighted conclusion that the danger has passed. Lake Balkhash lies in the steppes in eastern Kazakhstan
In the long term water levels on Balkhash will fall
“We call it ‘the ocean’” says Oleg Schuhmacher about Lake Balkhash. “Storms here are the real thing, very dangerous”
For Lake Balkhash, such a course of events would be a death sentence. The lake is shallow – no more than 10 metres at its deepest point. “So even now, the lake is Fields Twice the Size of an airport divided into two parts: the fresh and the salty,” explains Profligate use of water resources in Kazkahstan itself Dostai. “And since water quickly evaporates in a dry climate, the lake is extremely sensitive to any reduction in also contributes to the threat. Creeping sands have already reached the outskirts of Bakbarty, a settlement 150 the inflow of water.” The shallower the lake becomes, the faster its water kilometres from Kuigan. Only 70 metres now separate evaporates. The less water flows into Lake Balkhash, the the dunes from the first houses, but the villages continue faster the surface area of the lake shrinks. That in turn to raise rice in the surrounding land. And rice, of course, threatens the broad reed beds that line the shore and requires artificial irrigation. Akylbek Botbayev is a foreman at a collective farm serve as a refuge for numerous species of birds and animals, and with time will push the two million people who that raises rice on 1,000 hectares (about twice the size live in the Balkhash Basin and depend on fishing and ag- of Berlin’s Tegel airport). In Bolbayev’s words, “rice is a very sensitive crop, and you have to maintain an exact riculture to the brink of starvation. Dostai and his colleagues estimate that the optimal level of water in all the fields. It’s a real art.” As he proudly level of water in Balkhash is 341 metres above sea level. In shows us around his lush green fields, he explains how early 2012 the water was at 267 metres above sea level. If water levels are regulated with the simple opening and the water level falls below 230 metres, Balkhash, like the closing of manually operated locks on the canals. “And no pumps; the water is guided only by gravity. Aral, may fragment into several separate, smaller lakes. 76
Photo: Edda Schlager
Water for irrigating both the rice fields and the crops the collective raises on another 2,000 hectares is diverted from the main channel of the Ili River two kilometres away. For much of their course the walls of the open irrigation ditches are not concreted, however, so a significant portion of water simply seeps into the ground before it reaches the fields. “The water there is enough,” says Boybayev reassuringly.
Balkhash, Copper, Zinc and Lead
Kazakh politicians tend to refrain from criticizing China, and such reticence is understandable: China is Kazakhstan’s most important foreign partner, and has plunged billions of dollars of investment into the Kazakh economy. Thus the Chinese shy away from talks, while continuing to develop their western regions without regard to the fate of Lake Balkhash. Edda Schlager, Almaty, Kazakhstan
There is one more factor that makes Lake Balkhash like the Aral. For decades, the waters of the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya carried fertilizer, pesticides, and insecticides out from irrigated cotton fields downstream and into the Aral. This deadly mixture was held for years at the bottom the sea: now its bed is exposed, the pollution is carried by dust storms across the region. Experts from Kazgidromet, Kazakhstan’s hydro-meteorological service, believe the level of pollution in Lake Balkhash is constantly increasing. In the eastern, shallower end of the lake concentrations of copper, zinc, lead, arsenic and sulphates have doubled in the past two years alone. Scientists believe that deposits of heavy metals on the bed of the lake by now amount to hundreds of tons. One of the biggest culprits is effluent from the Kazakhmys corporation’s copper smelting combine in the town of Balkhash on the lake’s northern shore.
Politicians Fear Criticizing China Despite the social and economic significance of the problem, Kazakhstan and China are still a long way from reaching agreement on Lake Balkhash’s inflowing rivers. In 2001, the two countries set up a joint Kazakh-Chinese commission on questions of use of trans-border water resources, but the bilateral agreement that came with it is non-binding, being only a declaration of intention. “We need a clear agreement defining how much water each country has a right to divert from each river,” says Dostai. Kazakh Deputy Agriculture Minister Marat Tolibayev says the Chinese have agreed to joint regulation of the water issue “on the principles of justice and dependent on the size of the population in the river basins.” However, as Tolibayev notes, “if we carve up water resources like that, someone has to lose.”
The Quiet Player
Water issues play a bigger role in Afghanistan than at first appears
Afghanistan’s Significant but Low-Profile Role in Central Asia’s Water Question rivers and Politics
At first glance, water has little to do with the three decades of political strife and warfare that have wracked contemporary Afghanistan. But water resources actually have an indirect but profound influence on the political situation. In particular, the deterioration of economic conditions in rural areas dependent on agriculture and irrigation has left a growing number of people without the means to support themselves, feeding both a growing pool of recruits for radical groups and a steady stream of economic migrants leaving the country to build their Geography lives elsewhere. Afghanistan is one of the “up-river” countries Central While it generally takes ten to 15 years from the first Asia. The streams that form in its mountains feed rivers signs of water resources running low to the political conthat in turn carry water across the border to Afghani- sequences beginning to be felt, the impact is much more stan’s lower-lying neighbours: the Hari to Turkmenistan; immediate – and brutal – when irrigation systems are the Amu Darya and its tributary the Penj to Uzbekistan; destroyed by warfare. Faced with a sudden loss of crucial the Kabul River to Pakistan, and the Helmand to Iran. As water supplies, local farmers have a stark choice: either such, Afghanistan plays a role in the Central Asian river switch from food crops to less-thirsty opium poppies, systems akin to that of its northern neighbour Tajikistan. which can be raised without irrigation, or abandon the It is also one of those countries where changes in pre- area altogether. cipitation patterns and glacier melt caused by climate Building large irrigation systems, on the contrary, can change have led to a gradual fall in water levels in these lead to tangible benefits in just four or five years: they rivers and over the past decade. The Amu Darya and Hel- provide employment, improve standards of living, allow mand river basins have been particularly badly affected, farmers to abandon poppy cultivation, and weaken the but so, to lesser extent, has the Kabul River Basin. A influence of radical groups. An increasing number of Afsimilar process is going on in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, ghan economists and politicians consider such projects where scientists believe water runoff and river levels will essential to the future of this still overwhelmingly agricontinue to fall until the year 2050. cultural country. 78
Drinking Water, Irrigation, Energy Afghanistan’s water resource managers face three main tasks: to provide the population with drinking water; ensure irrigation for agriculture and industry; and keep the country’s hydroelectric plants running. Of all of these, irrigation is by far the most pressing. In Afghanistan, as in other agricultural economies like Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, farming eats up about two Consumption Statistics thirds of the country’s water resources. Taking up these three tasks will require building dams But there are other hurdles to be overcome before any of and reservoirs to accumulate water, and also building these projects can get off the ground. One of the most major canals to drain water from river channels and ex- serious obstacles to resolving water problems in Afghaniisting reservoirs in areas of high demand. But since Af- stan is the absence of modern data on the flow and annughanistan’s streams and rivers form the headwaters of the al cycle of rivers and stocks of surface water and ground region’s great waterways, its irrigation and hydroelectric water. Soviet data, mostly gathered in the 1970s and projects will mean less water for its downriver neigh- 1980s, is in most cases the most recent available, but it bours – making it a delicate diplomatic question, as well is already out of date and in need of revision. This lack of precise, up-to-date statistics makes it extremely difficult as an engineering challenge. to design the dams, reservoirs, canals and irrigation systems the country needs. There is a similar lack of data for Relations with Neighbours land needing irrigation, as well as land affected by salinity The biggest disagreements are likely to be with Paki- and in need of reclamation. stan and Iran. The growth of Kabul and soaring demand Another serious challenge is creating a sustainable for electricity from the country’s dams, along with the de- water supply for the large cities, especially Kabul. That velopment of Nangarhar province, has tangibly lowered will require construction of sewage systems and possiwater levels in Kabul River in the Western provinces of bly waste water processing plants; and to do that, water Pakistan and affected the river’s natural cycles, leading to engineers will need not only unique technology from disagreements between the two countries. other countries, but massive investments in the utilities The rivers of the Helmand River Basin, which flows systems. into Iran, are used for drinking water and, according to some sources, even exports of water to the countries of Omar Nessar, Moscow, Russia the Persian Gulf. Further development of irrigation in the provinces of Helmand, Nimrus and Farakh could affect the interests of Iran. In the Amu Darya Basin, a new hydroelectric plant on the Panj River that will impact water levels and the flow of the Amu Darya could raise questions from Uzbekistan. And in this connection it is worth remembering that Kabul remains dependent on deliveries of electricity from Uzbekistan. Disagreements with Turkmenistan over water are less likely: runoff from the Hari River flows into the Main Turkmenistan Canal, which takes water from the Amu Darya. 79
Photo: Waldemar Salesski
One of the impressive Red Mountains in Altyn-Emel National Park north of Almaty in Kazakhstan
Age: 39 Town and country: Born in Kabul, Afghanistan, I now live permanently in Moscow but often visit Afghanistan. Nationality and citizenship: I’m a citizen of the Russian Federation. Who do you live with? I’m married, with three children: two daughters and a son (and all from one wife!). Why are you interested in water issues? The question of water in Central Asia may soon affect everyone in the region. And not only in that region, come to that. What does the world think of your country? Afghanistan has turned into a headache for Western countries. If I hadn’t been a journalist, I’d have been... a doctor.
“You can’t just accept the Aral is doomed!” A Kazakh Environmentalist on New Solutions to Central Asia’s Water Problems
Bulat Yesseikin is one of the main developers of green economic damage wreaked by the Aral Sea disaster has initiatives in Central Asia, a member of the Global Wa- long since outstripped the benefits brought by the engiter Partnership and a Kazakh delegate to the Regional neering projects that caused it, and the bill is still growing. Council of Europe and Asia on Environment and Devel- Yet even though countries have recognized past mistakes, opment. Angelina Davydova spoke to him about water they have not learnt the lesson of the Aral Sea. Water problems in Central Asia, the restoration of the Aral Sea, management policies have hardly changed, and environand the future of water policy in the region mental interests are still not taken into account. And to compound it all, the negative effects of climate change are Bulat, why is Central Asia considered one of the glob- being felt more and more with each passing year. So to al regions where water problems are most acutely felt? professionals it is obvious that without changes to water policy in the region and without the creation of more acFirstly, Central Asia is a region particularly vulnerable tive mechanisms for preserving natural ecosystems, there to anthropogenic burdens. The absence of an outlet to will be more water shortages, quality of life will continue the ocean to regulate the climate, a high rate of deserti- to fall, and conflicts will become more common. fication, and other factors make agricultural activity in the region especially demanding. Secondly, the region At the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s, saw a population explosion in the second half of the 20th satellite photographs of the Aral Sea in the global media century: the population has more or less doubled since brought the disaster to the world’s attention. What has the 1960s. And thirdly, the relationship with the natural happened since then? world has never been a priority here. Even under the Soviet Union, conservation was only ever a secondary goal. The region has seen a great many political and ecoThe state and politicians always gave priority to economic nomic changes. After independence the countries of interests, at the expense of social and environmental ones. Central Asia created national systems of government The results of such an approach became apparent and water management, dozens of international prolater on, and now practically every country in the Aral jects were launched, hundreds of conferences were held Basin is paying for past mistakes. Economists reckon the and lots of money was spent. But the main barometer of 82
Photo: Bauyrzhan Doszhanov
Bulat Yesseikin (middle) at a conferece in Astana. He says: “The process of regional water distribution is characterised by an increasing lack of trust”
the effectiveness of this cooperation and the new water management policies is the Aral Sea itself – it has practically ceased to exist as a single body of water and continues to deteriorate. In the past two decades the Central Asian states and their international partners (including the Global Environment Facility, the United Nations Environment Program, the United Nations Development Program, the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, and USAID), have failed to build a system for managing the region’s water resources that is acceptable to all sides. Various new institutions – the International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea (IFAS), the Interstate Commission or Water Coordination of Central Asia (ICWC), the Interstate Commission on Sustainable Development (ICSD), their national branches, and scientific centres in Tashkent and Ashkhabad – have proved unable to fulfil the basic socio-economic and environmental tasks set before them. The latest program to save the Aral Sea does not differ significantly from any of its predecessors. Even if all the planned projects are successful, the situation in the Aral Basin will hardly improve: problems appear faster than they can be solved.
Does that mean we may as well forget about the Aral Sea ever being restored? Similar situations with water management have occurred in many countries at various stages of development, including countries with transitional economies in which the potential and social foundations necessary for “wise and just” government do not exist. As a result, water crises are becoming more common all over the world, ecosystems are being destroyed, and mountains of rubbish and emissions of greenhouse gasses continue to grow. But that doesn’t mean we should simply accept that the Aral cannot be restored. Experience in Japan, the United States, European countries, and elsewhere shows that many seas and lakes have been restored and given a new lease of life. New opportunities in cooperation and technology allow us to make up for missing social capital. For this we need to create a platform and agreement with all partners who have the experience, knowledge, investment, technology, and infrastructure for cooperation that Central Asia needs. 83
You are openly critical of existing assistance programs. But several international projects are working in very tangible ways, helping specific regions, districts and towns – aren’t they having a positive effect? Don’t you believe that “every bit helps”? Of course, at the local level, at the level of individually Central Asian states. What’s more, the process of reowned and managed water systems, there is a lot to do gional water distribution is becoming more closed and and a lot to change. We need educational programs, pro- characterised by an increasing lack of trust. In the abgrams for the study and transmission of new technolo- sence of information and opportunities to take part in the gies, programs to support investment and infrastructural planning and realization of programs, each organization, reforms. country or donor just does what it wants to – not what is But if questions of water supply and river flows remain actually needed. Secondly, no reliable financing mechaunregulated at the cross-border level, local efforts will nism for regional programs was ever put in place. Financcome to nothing. So it is extremely important for Central ing is practically entirely reliant on donor programs. But Asia that agreements and mutual action are worked out the short term, separated and fragmentary nature of doat the level of the entire Aral Basin. National efforts and nor projects could never serve as a sound financial basis strategies are also important, but without a regional pro- for the task before us. gram their potential for success is unclear. Saving the northern part of the (Lesser) Aral in Kazakhstan, the construction of a reservoir system in Uz“When these plans are realized, bekistan, the vast artificial Golden Age Lake being built the flow of water from China in Turkmenistan, the Rogun Dam in Tajikistan and other to Kazakhstan will fall by national efforts to “survive alone” will not solve the longtwo thirds” term problems of glacier melt. It’s as if water managers in the countries of Central Asia prefer not to talk about it, passing on this problem to future generations. A recent Another crucial but missing element is public particiconference in Almaty to mark the 20th anniversary of IFAS and ICWC showed that the water management au- pation. That doesn’t mean votes or formal participation thorities in the countries of Central Asia, ICWC and the of the NGOs in seminars, but the real involvement of the whole of IFAS have no solution, and do not even them- public and water consumers in taking decisions about water allocation and other questions which are usually selves believe it is possible to save the Aral. handled by national and interstate organizations. The What do you think are the main reasons for the fail- IFSA and its donor-supported structures have launched ure of international programs to solve Central Asia’s wa- numerous information and public education campaigns over the years. But with the end of each program these ter problems? efforts stop, and the Central Asian governments, who Probably the most immediate cause is that for all their generally have little real dependence on the public, have declarations of cooperation, states, international organi- shown little interest in including them in decision makzations, and donors have worked and continue to work ing. As for the main water consumers (the population, separately. The top management of the water utilities industry, farmers and others), whose welfare largely dethat lead this process tend to see water management was pends on regional cooperation, they remain broadly exa “closed” process that is the exclusive sphere of trained cluded from the decision making process. Without the water management professionals. As a result, the IFSA elements I have just outlined, regional programs cannot and ICWC have not received universal support and have be effective, and the confidence of states and support not been integrated into the economic activities of the from donors will both fall. 84
But it is impossible not to notice that the mere presence of these interstate structures is already helping to avoid conflicts. For all the shortcomings, apart from the occasional threat there has been no serious clash over water resources in Central Asia. As long as there was enough water, the countries in and quality of water at key points in the Aral Basin, and the region were friendly with one another. Later, when about decisions that have been made about water policy. water became scarce, adequate water supplies and peace- And anyone interested should be able to access this inforful relations between states were both maintained at the mation for free via the Internet. expense of the ecosystem, including the “voiceless” Aral Thirdly, we need to attract the private sector to the Sea. As this solution reaches its limits, peace and friend- water industry so we can set up public-private partnership is drying up. That’s why the question of real coop- ships with guaranteed long term economic, environeration, the question of real public engagement and in- mental, and social benefits, and lay the groundwork for tegration of economies and business into water policy, is a “green economy” and the restoration of natural capiincredibly important. tal. Technical cooperation and bilateral transfer of green Of course, we could just carry on pretending that ev- technologies amongst the Central Asian countries themerything is ok, and celebrate the next anniversary of the selves, as well as between the region as a whole and the international organizations when it comes around. But outside world, are crucial. At the local level it is importhe environmental welfare of the region and the interests tant to distribute green technology as widely as possible of millions of people, not to mention energy security and amongst farmers, householders, and small and mediumpeaceful relations between states, all hinge on regional sized businesses. All these measures could fundamentally cooperation. So it is important to be open about the dif- change the structure and practice of water use in the reficulties of the situation and look for new and additional gion, with great benefits in terms of both quality of life solutions. and the recovery of the ecosystem. What’s your prescription for reforming water management in the region?
Do you think the international assistance programs would have to change too?
First of all, transform all the inter-governmental orOf course, realizing these measures will require outganizations working on the Aral into real international side help – in the form of a professional and neutral frameorganizations. Release them from dependency on the na- work of support for regional cooperation, independent tional agencies of the countries they are in. Make their information and expert advice, new technologies, and decisions transparent and create practical mechanisms the creation of supporting infrastructure. The countries for their implementation. I’d also suggest analyzing all of Central Asia have supported the Green Bridge Initiathe current and planned programs in terms of their en- tive, developed and offered by Kazakhstan. You could add vironmental and socio-economic impact, and also from plenty of other things to these proposals, but one thing is the perspective of regional cooperation and new green clear: the degradation of the Aral Basin and the associtechnologies. ated growth of poverty, migration and conflict cannot be The second important move is real public engagement. halted with the current approach. New, fundamental deForming public councils made up of well-known and re- cisions must be taken about saving the Aral and its ecospected individuals from Central Asian countries, as well system, based on the principles of green economics and as international organizations and the NGOs. It is also mutually beneficial partnership. essential to modernize information channels – to create a single, integrated information system giving all countries Angelina Davydova, St. Petersburg, Russia unobstructed access to information about the quantity 85
Photo: Waldemar Salesski
Altyn-Emel National Park, to the north of Almaty in Kazakhstan, covers an area of 4,592 square kilometres
Water – Commodity or Gift of God? The Future of Water Economics in Central Asia
In Central Asia, water is talked about everywhere. Over tea in the green courtyards of old Tashkent, over pints of draught beer in Bishkek’s fashionable bars, over a bottle of Almaty wine in the foothills of the Tian Shan Mountains. But while no one disputes the importance and urgency of the question, agreement on water economy remains elusive. One person supports the idea of levying a toll on water, another responds that water is a common good and right, and that bringing money into the equation is simply wrong
raditionally, water has been considered a public good, and putting a financial value to it is not only difficult, but often considered improper. Along with clean air, urban and rural green spaces, fish in the sea, public education, medicine, security, and lighthouses on the high seas, water supplies are thought of as something to be used simultaneously by many different consumers without any one person’s consumption having any impact on availability to others. Such resources can be consumed for free (when they are available), and banning any partic-ular group from accessing them is practically impossible. And they are remarkably difficult to break down into component parts that can be commercially valued and monetized. It is easy to see how all of the above applies to the water in rivers, “which always have been and always will be”, “which are given to us from above”, and which you can never step into twice because the flow and its natural cleaning processes mean the water is constantly changing. But human economic activity is changing this picture. As rivers, lakes, and seas are polluted, depleted, and dry up, it becoming obvious that in some parts of the world there is not enough water (or at least fresh water) to go round. It is legitimate to ask: what are we going to do about it, and can we turn to economic solutions for help? 88
put an economic value to it: incorporating units of clean air, clean water, and green spaces into the economic and financial systems, setting standards and quotas, and creating markets and trading systems. The most radical followers of this doctrine advocate privatizing and monetiz ing virtually everything, arguing that resources with “no Until recently, few people even tried to monetize com- owner” will inevitably be spoiled, lost, and profligately mon goods. Earning money from fresh water or clean air spent. It is this logic that leads a number of internationseemed absurd, and putting a price on them somehow al organizations, including the World Bank and IMF, to amoral. But over the last two decades there have been nu- advocate the privatization of public water systems in merous attempts to bring public goods into the economic developing countries, and even to make it a condition of process, give them a price, and establish trading systems financial assistance to national governments. – with mixed success. But the idea of “monetizing” the entire planet and Here we need to consider one important fact. Public creating markets for water, air, and other public goods goods in modern societies are characterized by two fa- draws considerable criticism from both environmentalmous paradoxes: the “free rider effect”, when people will ists and economists. After all, markets for public goods happily use the benefits of a public good but are unwill- are just as vulnerable as other markets to volatility caused ing to pay for it, and “the tragedy of the commons” or the by macroeconomic shifts and imbalances in the market “prisoner’s dilemma”, when individuals acting in their own system. And experience with such systems so far has interests end up damaging the common good. been mixed, to put it mildly. Recent experiments in priThe apartment block courtyards ubiquitous to towns vatizing water resources and similar assets in a number of and cities across the post-Soviet space offer a perfect il- countries have demonstrated that private companies and lustration. Everyone wants the lawn to be mown and tidy, owners are not always interested in improving water use the doorways washed, and the water in the river to be efficiency, introducing water-saving programs, or investclean. But few are ready actually to do something about it, ing in infrastructure. even something as simple as voluntarily paying for public services. Moreover, many of the “irresponsible” citi“the human right to drinking zens are quite ready to walk across the flowerbeds, leave water is fundamental to rubbish on the stairwell, or take more than their share of life and health” water from the “commons” of the river as soon as it is convenient to do so. And since these goods – the lawns, the stairwells, and the river – are all held in common, identifying offenders, polluters or thieves is often difficult. One solution could be public-private partnerships, It is one thing in a small village, where time is on the side of the local community: when spheres of personal where the state retains some of its functions (including responsibility are well defined, the responsibility for ac- ownership and responsibility to the citizens of the countions and also the ability to reach agreement and coordi- try), while investment and management of resources are nate actions can be achieved much more easily. It is quite handled by the private sector. There are various forms of another when it comes to large cities or even trans-na- PPP, but, again, the results of previous experiments have been very mixed: in some countries and regions such tional public goods. The basic tenet of environmental economics is to tack- schemes have worked very well, resulting in a more efle this paradox by bringing “the environment”, including fective models of management and water distribution. natural capital and common goods, into the economic Elsewhere, corrupt local governments or companies moprocess. That means ceasing to consider the environment tivated only by profit have managed to completely destroy as something that can be put off till tomorrow or treat- water systems or significantly worsen local living condiing it as economics’ poorer sister, and seeking instead to tions, especially for the most vulnerable layers of society. 89
In short, there is no ideal, off-the-shelf solution. The best governments can do is look at the experience of other countries and try to develop their own local, national, and regional models tailored to local conditions and taking into account (and coordinating) the interests of all stakeholders. Another important aspect here is the concept of the and economic growth. They may be right, but such “right to water”, and recognition of water supply as one of changes are unlikely to occur for many years, if ever, and the core responsibilities of the state. The United Nations a number of regions of the world already face extremely estimates an individual needs 50 litres of water per day to serious water shortages. The fact that water, its quality, meet daily needs, and 100 litres to live comfortably. But and its affordability, will be one of the major issues of the in fact, consumption rates vary widely from country to coming century is something most economists already country. People in Canada and the United States each get agree on. So it is quite possible that the “truth about wathrough about 300 litres per day, EU residents 100 litres ter” lies somewhere between a “commodity” and a “gift.” to 200 litres, while the typical citizen of Sudan uses about 30 litres. Angelina Davydova, St. Petersburg, Russia In November 2002, the UN Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights adopted a General Comment or Clarification on the Right to Water, recognizing that “the human right to drinking water is fundamental to life and health”, and that access to sufficient safe drinking water “is a prerequisite for the realization of other human rights”. In August 2010 the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution on the Human Right to Water and Sanitation, which states that “the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation is a human right that is essential for the full enjoyment of life and all human rights”. Representatives of 41 countries, however, abstained from voting on the matter. Unfortunately, United Nations declarations often remain merely declarations. At the local level, the availability of clean drinking water, and indeed water for agriculture and industry, is a very different matter. And here it will prove difficult to do without the tools of watereconomics. Without including water in economic and financial flows, countries, companies, local governments, communities, and ordinary residents of towns and villages will find it very difficult to quickly change their relationship to water, learn to cherish it and economize on it, to clean and re-use this immense and priceless resource. True, radical environmentalists say that including water and other public and social goods in this economic model is a thankless task, mainly because of the corrupt system of global capitalism, and that humanity must instead work to change the economic system as a whole, including the way value is measured in success, money, 90
Publisher: n-ost Network for Reporting on Eastern Europe Neuenburger Str. 17 10969 Berlin / Germany Phone +49-30-259 32 83 0 Fax +49-30-259 32 83 24 www.n-ost.org Responsible under German press law: Hanno Gundert Project leader: Angelina Davydova Translation/English-language editor: Roland Oliphant Copy editor English: John Lambert Editorial consultant: Tamina Kutscher Project assistant: Aigulle Sembayeva Photo editor: Stefan GĂźnther Layout/Design: Armen Vanetsyan Waldemar Salesski, a Russian-born freelance photographer from Berlin, spent two months in early summer 2013 travelling through Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan to take photographs for the project. Portraits: Andrei Kudryashov Cover Photo: Image courtesy of the Image Science & Analysis Laboratory, NASA Johnson Space Center Print: Medialis Offsetdruck GmbH With the support of:
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