Last summer Uzbek President Islam Karimov, speaking to his fellow regional leaders, assailed "some countries" in Central Asia that are keen on constructing hydropower stations on cross-border rivers for their "various and ambiguous approaches."
Although Karimov did not state explicitly which countries he was referring to during the summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, it was clear he meant Tajikistan, which has proposed or is already building a number of power stations on the Vakhsh and Pyandzh rivers.
The confluence of the two rivers is the source of the Amu Darya, Central Asia's longest river, which forms portions of borders for both Uzbekistan and Tajikistan and finally empties into the Aral Sea in Uzbekistan.
"Today this issue [of water] represents the interests of more than 50 million people living in the countries of the region," Karimov said.
He added that a failure to manage the situation appropriately could affect the "provision of water in the lower course of the Amu Darya and Syr Darya," another river that runs mostly through Kazakhstan: "That is why all kinds of decisions on the use of these rivers' sources, including the construction of hydropower stations, must take these interests into consideration." Karimov also said hydropower development could "speed up the ecological catastrophe of the desiccation of the Aral Sea and … make it practically impossible to live for tens of millions of residents of Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan."
Karimov's warnings highlight the complexities of Central Asia's water issues. In particular, Uzbekistan is in conflict with Dushanbe over hydropower development in Tajikistan, because the water that could generate additional electricity and smelt more aluminum upstream is also needed to water Uzbekistan's valuable cotton crop.
For its part, Tajikistan sees new dams and hydropower plants as necessary for its economic health. Consequently, the countries are locked in disagreement.
Tajikistan's greatest natural resource is the water stored in its glaciers, lakes and rivers. NASA photo.
According to an International Crisis Group report, "Competition for water is increasing in Central Asia at an alarming rate, adding tension to what is already an uneasy region." The Eurasian Economic Community, a consortium of regional governments, has reported that between 1960 and 2000, the population of the region tripled and the area of irrigated lands -- largely used for agricultural mainstays like cotton and rice -- almost doubled. As a result, the demand for water skyrocketed.
In comparison to its oil- and gas-rich neighbors, Tajikistan possesses vast water resources. According to the United Nations Development Program in 2006, the country has 4 percent of the world's hydroelectric potential, although much of it is untapped. The water is stored in glaciers, rivers, lakes, and underground sources, and there currently are nine operational reservoirs containing 15.34 cubic kilometers of water. Tajik water is used regionally for sanitation, irrigation, and drinking.
Not surprisingly, Tajikistan's water resources could provide large quantities of electricity for both domestic customers and exports. But a lack of investment in the hydropower sector has left Tajikistan relying on imported oil and gas for most of its energy and bemoaning its inability to earn substantial capital from hydropower shipped outside its borders.
The tension with Uzbekistan is only exacerbating the problem. Uzbekistan relies heavily on cotton for economic stability; it is the second largest exporter of the crop in the world. Thus, its objections to Tajikistan's proposed hydropower projects involve concerns about environmental and economic mismanagement of water needed to keep fields fertile. Any changes in the flow of the Amu Darya, Uzbek officials say, could pose irrigation problems for Uzbekistan's cotton crop if they are not implemented and maintained properly.
In early 2007, an agreement to construct a hydropower station on the Zeravshan River was secured between Barki Tajik (Tajik Electricity) and a Chinese company.
Construction was set to start in May, but it was delayed. Information disseminated through the media suggested that Uzbek officials had warned that the station would interfere with cotton irrigation in five Uzbek provinces. They asked that the project not be implemented.
Though Tajik authorities denied that the Zeravshan project would threaten Uzbekistan's supply of water for irrigation -- in fact, it insists that Tajik hydropower development would improve the supply -- Deputy Minister of Energy and Industry Pulod Muhiddinov announced at a summer press conference that the Chinese company had pulled out over Uzbekistan's concerns.
It was yet another setback for Tajikistan -- and another notch in the belt of tension tightening around the region's energy issues.
Hulkar Yusupov, a Tajik newspaper editor, said there is no doubt that the debate over the joint use of cross-border water resources is one of the main knots of controversy among Central Asian countries. In particular, it is threatening overall development prospects for Tajikistan, one of the region's poorest nations with a per-capita GDP of only about 1,000 euros.
"Water resources arising on the territory of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are used by all the countries of the region," Yusopov said. "Water, which in the old days used to unite our people, is turning into a foreign policy weapon. … Certainly, water was, is, and will be the most important geo-economic and strategic development resource [for Tajikistan], control of which will allow modernizing not only of the economy, but also the social sphere."
Tajik officials insist that in seeking hydropower development, they are not trying to violate the interests of nearby countries. "This does not coincide with reality," Tajik President Imomali Rahmon said in his annual address to parliament on 30 April. He also proposed that the Central Asian countries set up an international consortium for the use of water resources in Lake Sarez, a mountain lake in the east of Tajikistan that some experts fear could burst its natural dam. Neighboring countries have yet to respond to the proposal.
Another project Tajikistan sees as crucial for the region is the Rogun dam, which would provide electricity for a large aluminum plant. Construction of the station, the largest in Central Asia, began in 1976 on the Vakhsh River, but it has never been completed.
Sirodjidin Aslov, Tajikistan's permanent representative to the UN, said recently that the completion of Rogun would not threaten Uzbekistan's irrigation system. According to EurasiaNet, Aslov said that in addition to boosting Tajik aluminum production, the dam would provide irrigation for 3 million hectares of land in Central Asia.
Tajikistan signed a construction agreement with the Russian aluminum giant Rusal in 2004, but the partners split in August 2007. The main reason, according to Tajik officials, was Rusal's unwillingness to build the dam high enough. "Tajikistan has waited for a long time for Rusal to start construction, but the company did not agree with the requirements of our government," said Sayfullo Safarov, deputy head of the Center for Strategic Research, an arm of the Tajik presidency.
Safarov also said he believes the Russian company acted "under the influence of Uzbekistan, [which] wanted to make the efficiency of the Rogun station very low."
Some political analysts argue that Uzbekistan's objections to Tajik hydropower development revolve around more than agricultural and economic concerns. Were the country able to produce more electricity, aluminum, and other exports and services thanks to new hydropower stations, Tajikistan's economy would receive a serious shot in the arm and become less dependent on its neighbors.
Currently one of the region's major powers, Uzbekistan fears such growth would provide Dushanbe with more political clout, upping its status as a regional rival for political influence.
"Uzbekistan does not wish for the development of Tajikistan or for its energy independence," said an independent Tajik political expert, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Political contention between Dushanbe and Tashkent could be playing out in other cross-border energy issues. In October, Tajik government officials announced they had reached a deal with Turkmenistan to import electricity for the winter, and that Uzbekistan had promised to renovate the power line necessary for the transfer. But Tajiks were cautious about the news. The previous year, a similar deal brokered with Kyrgyzstan reportedly fell through because Uzbekistan claimed it didn't have the capacity to support the transfer.
The electricity was set to start flowing by 1 November, according to both Uzbek and Tajik officials. By the middle of the month, however, Tajikistan was still awaiting the delivery. When the electricity finally did come, it wasn't initially at full volume, due to technical problems in Uzbekistan, according to Tajik officials.
Some energy experts say Tajikistan and Uzbekistan must find a way to solve their conflict, possibly through joint ownership of hydropower projects. Georgiy Petrov, a hydropower expert at the Tajikistan Academy of Sciences, said Uzbekistan could be mollified by allowing it to own shares in the construction of hydropower stations in Tajikistan.
Currently, Dushanbe is investing jointly with Russian partner Unified Energy Systems in the construction of the Sangtuda-1 hydropower station on the Vakhsh River. The Russian state-owned company owns 75 percent of shares in the project, which is set for completion in 2009.
As of now, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are not participating in any joint investment projects, according to the Ministry of Energy and Industry. However, Energy Minister Gul Sherali told journalists in October, "Our country is ready to consider any proposal from any country" so long as the project coincided with Tajik interests, "which lie in the development of our hydropower."