Uzbeki women picking cotton. Uzbekistan is the world’s third largest exporter of cotton
It seems to be everywhere, ceaseless, benign. But since ancient times, water has also been a coveted resource, one that can lead to famine and spark wars. “Whisky is for drinking; water is for fighting over,” Mark Twain wrote. Long before the Bible, Michael Spector reminds us, the cities of ancient Sumeria went to war over control of their rivers water. In fact, the word “rivals” comes from the Latin rivalis, for “one taking from the same stream as another."
Most people drink two or three litres of water a day, with the rest typically used for cooking, bathing, and sanitation. Americans are the biggest water consumers, using between four hundred and six hundred litres of water each day. Most Europeans use less than half that. For millions of other people, however, water is much scarcer. New technologies and global charities have been tackling the problem, sometimes in dramatic ways, with varied degrees of success.
The stakes are huge. Growing cities are putting new pressures on water basins – water use has tripled over the past 50 years, according to the United Nations – and massive cross-border water projects like dams are turning up preexisting tensions. The social and ecological threats have become “dire,” according to a new U.N. study issued this week that synthesizes the findings of 90 scientists who looked at 200 water projects around the world. According to the report, “We face a ‘water bankruptcy’ in many regions of the world with implications for food and energy security, adaptation to climate variability and change, economic growth and human security challenges.”
A map of global water tensions (Al Jazeera)
In another report issued earlier this year, the U.S. Director of National Intelligence predicted that water challenges will likely threaten the stability of individual countries or regions in the next decade (included also: an obligatory note about the threat of water terrorism). A report this week from scientists at the University of British Columbia warned that the Persian Gulf, Libya, and Pakistan are all at risk of “insecurity” due to the degradation of fisheries. At a meeting at the UN on Tuesday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the dangers of water conflict “real” and said that developing solutions for future water needs is a “moral imperative and a strategic investment.”
Situation is fluid
The potential for conflict there revolves around Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, and in particular over dam building by the Tajiks, who are upstream of the Uzbeks. The Uzbeks are not taking the provocation lying down. They’ve already lost their main water reserve, the Aral Sea, to Stalin’s 1940s plan to irrigate cotton fields, a project called the “Transformation of Nature.” And Uzbek President Islam Karimov is infamous for ruling over oil reserves and national wealth with an iron fist since a dubious 1991 election. In the tradition of colorful and tyrannical Central Asian leaders, he’s also known for rewriting history books to make himself the spiritual descendant of the warlord Tamerlane, owning a soccer team in the national league that never loses, and allegedly boiling rebels alive and ordering assassinations.
In November 2011, Karimov increased tariffs on Tajikistan for railway transit, suspended railway movement linking the two countries, and in March of this year, reportedly began dismantling the railway connection, which would effectively cut Tajikistan off from the rest of the world. Citing new contractual commitments of natural gas supplies to China, Uzbekistan also interrupted gas deliveries to Tajikistan for half of April 2012. Because Tajikistan gets nearly 95 percent of its natural gas from Uzbekistan, that single move nearly paralyzed the Tajik economy.
Infographic courtesy International Networks Archive, Princeton University; by Jonathan Harris, Number 27
What are the chances the rising water tensions could boil over into something worse? Or, as Ben Makuch asks at Vice, what are the prospects of “the region’s brewing geopolitical shit-storm” turning into “a full blown shit-hurricane”?
Joshua Foust, a Central Asian expert with the American Security Project, isn’t convinced war is inevitable, but says, “the potential is definitely there for that dispute to become violent […] if the Tajiks stopped releasing enough water to feed all of the Uzbek cotton fields, that might push things over the edge.” [Uzbekistan exports 11 percent of the world’s cotton, behind India and the U.S.] According to Foust, while internal violence in Central Asia by a state against its people is all too common, state to state violence is pretty rare. Yet he does admit there are ominous signs and the conflict needs to be monitored: “The reason why this hasn’t deteriorated into open violence is because both parties are keenly aware of the potential for violence.”
For NATO countries, another conflict in the ‘Stans might not mean more body bags and beheading videos. When asked to describe an American response to a war, Foust was blunt. “There is definitely not an appetite in Washington for initiating another armed conflict, that’s part of the reason there’s been no response in Syria. What the US would do immediately is focus itself on the humanitarian response. If there were American assets and citizens being targeted you’d see a very sharp response, but I don’t think that would involve troops on the ground.”
Foust also described the disruptive contest between superpowers in the region, as Russia, America, and China jockey for influence. “Although the contest is real, a war won’t happen until one of these outside powers funds their proxies against one another directly.” In other words, each superpower would look to pin down another in an Afghan-Soviet or Vietnam type of war, which among other things spawned the mujahedeen (precursors to Al-Qaeda) and severely taxed the infrastructure of the US Army, respectively. The US interest is simple: these countries are strategic supply routes for the eventual withdrawal from Afghanistan. If they were compromised it would only leave Pakistan as an option, which some see as an extremist hornets’ nest buzzing with anti-American sentiment.
At the heart of the tension is the Roghun dam, under construction on Tajikistan’s Naryn River. With a capacity of 3 billion megawatts of electricity, the dam would be the largest in the world, and provide all of the country’s electricity, relieving its need for natural gas from its unfriendly neighbor. But Tashkent insists the dam would also threaten the Syr-Darya river in Uzbekistan and hence the irrigation of its cotton fields. Other critics downstream worry about the possibility of catastrophic earthquakes that could flood nearby towns and even settlements in Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.
Blasts divert Tajikistan’s Vakhsh river to make way for the Sangtuda 1 hydroelectric plant
“Many experts declare that water resources could tomorrow become a problem around which relations deteriorate, and not only in our region,” Uzbekistan President Karimov told reporters on September 7. “Everything can be so aggravated that this can spark not simply serious confrontation but even wars.” The World Bank has entered the fray, urging that Tajikistan halt construction on Roghun until the Bank can release an independent environmental assessment, sometime by the end of 2012. Back at the U.N., a meeting this week between the U.S., the European Union and U.N. Water ended with the frail assurance that coping with water conflicts has only just begun.
It’s very hard to properly capture the possibility – let alone the severity – of conflicts over water. And at the moment, given external geopolitical conditions (Afghanistan, Russia, the U.S.), it’s not likely that a water conflict will be the central cause of an all-out war in Central Asia. But you need only look at the turmoil of the past eighteen months for a fresh reminder of what rising food prices can do to political situations that are already on edge. Oil wells on fire were always a much easier symbol of geopolitical turmoil. Now we have desiccated bodies of water – and we didn’t even talk about those loaded “climate dice.”