Central Asia, particularly the area stretching between the rivers Amu Darya and Syr Darya, is considered to be one of the earliest seats of civilization, culture and irrigated farming. As early as the sixth and seventh centuries AD the Arab conquerors named it ‘the garden of the caliph of the faithful’ (Donish 1883). This was because of the gardens and vineyards covering 50 per cent of the region’s area at that time. Throughout their history, the peoples of Central Asia were engaged in grassland farming and gardening along with irrigated land cultivation (Bartold 1970). The region, located in land-locked terrain with an extreme
continental climate, is now home to more than 50 million people. Five newly independent Central Asian countries based here share one of the world’s largest irrigation and drainage systems covering 8.1 million hectares, supported by a few large reservoirs with hydropower stations. The reservoirs and hydropower units are mainly located in the upstream mountainous countries while irrigation is largely in the plains of the downstream and in the mountain valleys of the downstream countries. Previously, this complex system was governed according to a set of policies defined by Moscow during the Soviet times. Now, the newly emerged borders have created ad hoc fragmentation of this system and each country is pursuing separate policies related to agriculture, land, water use and sharing that are not necessarily coherent with each other. Since irrigated agriculture provides the main and largest income base, water is a crucial resource for the region. The water sharing between the Central Asian states was previously enforced from the top. It was centrally organized according to allocation policies decided by the Ministry of Water (Minvodhoz) in Moscow and agreed by the local leadership. Now it has become an essential ingredient for prosperity and survival, but also a source of tension between these nations. In the late 1980s Central Asia became known as a zone of man-made catastrophe because of the Aral Sea disaster area (Micklin 1991, 1992 and 1993; Spoor 1998). Due to the irrigation developments in the region, the world’s fourth largest lake dried up to two-thirds of its original size. Since then many issues and problems related to water management in the region have become known globally (Sievers 1992; Micklin 2000; Thurman 1999; Pearce 2006). Many researchers and politicians predicted that water conflicts of Central Asia would flare up into actual clashes between countries. However, since 1991, while there have been conflicts, no serious clashes over water have yet occurred in the region. This does not mean that the region’s countries have reached agreement on water. Its extreme continental climate with very low rainfall and shrinking ice caps on mountains due to climate change make water increasingly scarce. The Aral Sea is continuing to dry out due to the large amounts of water diverted for irrigation, creating serious damage to the natural resources of the region with implications for national economies as well as the livelihoods of communities. This leaves a huge space for potential water conflicts in the region. However, this chapter argues that the water resources of the region can provide adequate supply, temporally as well as spatially, to the economy, population and water infrastructure developed during the Soviet times. We have highlighted a number of important political, economical, social and institutional factors which will have an important impact on the future of water resources management in the region. This chapter will first discuss economic development and the increasing inter-and intrastate income inequality in Central Asia, which influence use and allocation of water resources. It turns next to examining in detail some of the above factors in an attempt to evaluate potential sources of conflict arising from water use and distribution at the macro-level. In so doing, it seeks to illuminate the hopeful signs for a positive change in the region. Finally, a number of differ-
ent ways are discussed to avoid potential conflicts and improve interstate water cooperation.