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Central Asia: position for the 4-th World Water Forum

Background Information

Central Asia covers territory of five countries: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. It is situated in the heart of the Eurasian continent with the total area of 3,882,000 square kilometres and the population of over 53 million (2004). It borders with Afghanistan and Iran in the south, with China in the east and with Russia in the west and in the north.

Central Asia is an unique region with a wide variety of ecosystems, including the highest ranges of the Pamirs, Tyan-Shan and Altai mountains, the vast deserts and steppes, large ancient rivers and a lot of lakes including the lake Issyl-Kul is one of the world’s most beautiful and deepest lakes. The regional ecosystems play an important role in maintaining the global environmental equilibrium and hydrological cycle.

Available water resources have always principal impact to the economic activities in Central Asia as limiting factor for development which is competing with ecological requirements. The largest rivers over the region are mostly transboundary and they are the following: the Syr-Darya and Amurdarya (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan), Chu and Talas (Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan), Tarim (Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, China), Ili (China, Kazakhstan), Irtysh (China, Kazakhstan, Russia), Ural, Ishim, Tobol (Kazakhstan, Russia).

Social-economic development of the region has depended on water and land resources since immemorial time. Irrigated farming and livestock production formed the biggest part of welfare, but in the same time created vulnerable conditions and water limitations for ecosystems. The region started actively using irrigation in the 6-7th century B.C and still it is one of the biggest irrigation region in the world (with about 8.9 million hectares of irrigated crops). Population growth and economic development have significantly increased the demand for water in the region especially during the past 40 years. Actual surface and underground water withdrawal in Central Asian countries varies from 20% of available water resources (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan) to 80-90% (Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan).

Water is the key factor for the well being of Central Asian countries. Availability of clean water will determine the quality of life and the future development in the region. These countries are united through the ecosystems of the water system. Any changes in water use of one country will inevitable affect the interests of the other countries. The need of a modern, but common system of management for the Central Asian is rooted in the nature itself and requires the working out and development of mechanism of cooperation towards integrated approaches.

Framework Directions towards the IV World Water Forum

The regional program towards the WWF-4 under a slogan: “Kioto’s Spirit – on the Way to Mexico” was initiated by Scientific-Information Center of the Interstate Commission for Water Coordination (SIC ICWC) with facilitation from the GWP CACENA in November 2004. The program was officially approved at 41st ICWC meeting in Almaty on April 27-29 2005 during the International Conference “ICWC towards to the World Water Forum IV: Local Efforts to Prevent Water Crisis”. The Conference agreed the principal regional actions within this program with focus to the priorities existed at the different levels (transboundary, national, basin, local). The priority framework themes (compatible with themes of the WWF-4) are the following:

1. Integrated Water Resources Management. This theme addressing to the formulation of practical actions for IWRM implementation in the region, when IWRM is a management system based on account of all types of water (surface, underground, return) within hydrographic boundaries, which coordinates interests of various sectors and hierarchic levels, involves all stakeholders in decision making, facilitates effective water, land and linked natural resources use in interest of sustainable development of society and ecological stability. The principal output should be practically recognized mechanism of water management , which will include not just institutional issues, but certain art to apply these rules in certain conditions over the region. The countries of the region are on the way of broad IWRM concept implementation. This concept already accepted by the Water Codes in three of five countries, and some pilot projects demonstrated success of the practical approaches towards IWRM innovations. The real ongoing actions supported not only by governmental water management organizations, but also by the most part of stakeholders and NGOs. The principal regional experience and lessons with IWRM implementation will be presented to the WWF-4 in the special position paper “IWRM in Central Asia: Lessons and practical result” which is recently under preparation based on the outputs of a number of the pilot projects (“IWRM in Fergana Valley”, “IWRM in Lowlands of Amudarya and Syrdarya”, “National IWRM and Water Efficiency Plan for Kazakhstan” and others).

2. Water for Food and Environment. This theme addressing to increase productivity of water used mostly for agriculture and save water for environmental demands. There is scarcity of water resources not over the whole Central Asian region, but it is specific circumstances for some river basins. Among them are the Aral Sea Basin, the Ili river, the Chu and Talas rivers, the Zeravshan river, where we can observe competition for water between irrigation (the biggest water user – about 90% of total water withdrawal) and ecological needs. The irrigated agriculture is actually the principal driver for food security and employment of rural population in the region, and it creates the most opportunities for export potential. In the same time, huge irrigation development last 40-50 years caused tremendous impact to the ecosystems: shrinking of the Aral Sea and Balkhash Lake, desertification, lost of rivers and their deltas as natural sources for bio-productivity and diversity. The actual annual economic damage in the result of ecological degradation only in the Aral Sea Basin estimated by specialists from SIC ICWC as 260 Million USD. The modern issue is how to meet those two competing requirements on the basis of proper compromises. The proposed way could be based on changes of style of thinking and methods applied for interactions between the society and nature. The all water uses should be oriented to the best available technologies aimed achievement of the potential productivity of water and land, and shifting from satisfaction of water requirements to the demand management. Some ongoing projects in the region showed the ability for improvement of the environmental situation suggesting ecologically sound approaches for water management. One of the best example showing ways to rehabilitation of the environmental sustainability is design of wetlands restoration on the shrinking bed of the Aral Sea and aforestation of the Syrdarya and Amudarya rivers deltas. Another possible measures which could be undertaken by the Central Asian countries are the following:

  • To anchor the environmental requirements in the national and interstate legislation (addressing to protect deltas, to regulate ecological flows, etc.);
  • To implement principle “Polluter pays”;
  • To organize proper management of the return flows and keep water quality along the main rivers;
  • To protect small rivers and water bodies;
  • To improve hydro-ecological monitoring;
  • To support public awareness and involvement.

3. Water for Development. This theme addressing to the strategic planning of the future development of Central Asia. Some steps already were done by the interstate working group of the respected national experts from five countries in the past three years. Analysis of the specific features of the regional ecology and constraints showed existence of destabilizing factors for regional development and economic growth. The most significant are the following:

  • Growth of population and high proportion of rural population (more than 60 % - except only Kazakhstan, where rural population is about 40 %);
  • Possible increase of water withdrawal to Afghanistan from Amudarya river – up to 8…9 km3 per year form 2…2.5 km3 recently;
  • Change of water availability under influence of climate change;
  • Recognition of environmental demands.

Future economic development of the six countries in the region under such circumstances should be based on the respect to the mutual interests, ability to compensate possible losses, skills of consensus achievement and broad involvement of all waters and other reserves. The experience of Turkmenistan gives good example how it is possible using the same amount of water withdrawal from the Amudarya to increase irrigated area in the country (from 1,420,000 hectares in 1995 up to 1,780,000 hectares in 2005). It was achieved by reducing of specific rate of water applied per each hectare. Some other reserves for future development could be found in proper interstate regulations especially around hydropower sector.

4. Risk Management. This theme addressing to the following two principal directions:

  • Climate changes which could cause growth of evaporation, reduce available water resources, increase floods and droughts;
  • Unpredictable political and economic circumstances in Central Asia which could cause some crisis situations for water management.

During the last 15 years (1990-2005) there were appeared critical situations within water management system more often than during previous 40 years period (1950-1990). Adoption of water management system to possible crisis requires proper complex measures, among which should be the following:

  • Strategic actions for extreme years and situations;
  • Increase of accuracy and trust to forecasts (hydrological and hydro-geological);
  • Increase accuracy of monitoring system and quick implementation of emergency services;
  • Public awareness and etc.

The one more challenging issue is earthquake monitoring and preventive actions. It relates to dams safety systems installation, monitoring and some proper actions for the famous Sarez Lake and etc.

As it is clear from the above short description of the issues within each framework theme there are proper needs and challenges for the region to link up ongoing processes and local actions under umbrella of the cross-cutting perspectives. The most important cross-cutting perspectives for Central Asian countries are:

  • Institutional Development and Political Will.
  • Capacity Building and Public Awareness.
  • Targeted Monitoring and Implementation Assessment.
  • Finance Models for Local Water Initiatives.

The regional process of preparations for WWF-4 was organized in the form of open virtual dialogue around the above-listed themes and perspectives using regional information portal ( Also there are widely disseminated in the region a number of brochures and monthly published bulletins “Towards the World Water Forum 4”.