The Central Asian nations can be divided into two groups – upstream (Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan) and downstream countries (Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan).

Central Asia has significant energy resources, but they are distributed unequally.  While the water-rich upstream countries possess basically no hydrocarbon resources, the downstream countries have access to most of the region’s oil and gas reserves.

In order to tackle this issue, Moscow put an exchange system in place during the days of the Soviet Union. As a result, water from upstream countries was exchanged for energy provided by the downstream countries. However, when the USSR dissolved and the administrative boundaries of Central Asian republics became international borders, the exchange system proved to be difficult to maintain.

The newly independent republics signed the Almaty Agreement in 1992, in which they agreed to uphold the system, but the rising nationalism led the nations to seek self-sufficiency and greater independence.  Mounting tensions led to gradual dissolution of the Almaty Agreement which was abandoned first by Turkmenistan (2003), and subsequently by Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan (both 2009). The issue is reportedly further exacerbated by inefficient water distribution and outdated infrastructure.  The problem is reportedly complicated because in some areas, the state boundaries are not demarcated.

Experts note that exacerbated by the impacts of climate change, the situation might lead to an armed interstate conflict.

All Central Asian states are heavy water users.  The Amu Darya and Syr Darya are the two most important rivers in Central Asia, rising in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan respectively.  Downstream countries use water from these rivers through irrigation canals.  Most of the water is used for irrigating the cotton crop.  While Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are the least water-stressed countries, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are the most water-stressed states.

Mountain glaciers are the major source of water in Central Asian rivers.  Tajikistan used to have 13000 glaciers but nearly 25 percent of the glaciers have melted in the past 70 years and another 25 percent could disappear by 2030.

Water flow in the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya has been decreasing due to acceleration in glacier melting caused by rising temperatures and less snow fall, intensive use of water through irrigation canals and the construction of reservoirs in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.  

Due to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan’s lack of natural resources for energy production, they are highly dependent on hydropower plants.  In 2015, electricity produced from hydroelectric sources reportedly accounted for 85.2% of the total in Kyrgyzstan and 95.5% in Tajikistan.  However, the use of hydropower plants restricts the water flow to the downstream countries. 

Experts note that weak international interaction and cooperation with countries in the upper reaches of transboundary rivers may have consequences for Kazakhstan therefore enhancing regional cooperation regarding shared water sources is crucial.

Kazakhstan has reportedly been leading efforts to overcome the water scarcity issue in Central Asia by searching for scientific solutions.  Kazakh National Agrarian Research University (KazNARU) hosts an international research center, “Water Hub” with 14 research laboratories dedicated to water and water research.  Water Hub is Central Asia’s only and the most modern water research facility.  

KazNARU Water Hub researchers have carried out long-term studies on climate change and its impact on water resources. The study found that the air temperature throughout Kazakhstan has been gradually increasing from year to year.  For example, the average annual temperature in Almaty 100 years ago was about 7°C, and today it is 12°C (an increase of 5 degrees).

In their report, the scientists have recommended a decrease in the number of water-intensive industries; introduction of modern water-saving technologies in the industry, agriculture, housing, and public services, and increasing freshwater resources through interstate water relations, regulation of river flows, use of groundwater reserves, desalination of saline and brackish water, an artificial increase in precipitation, and territorial water redistribution.

Along with climate change and extensive irrigation, the poor management and weak inter-state cooperation have created the water crisis in Central Asia that might cause food security problems, mass migration, and even conflicts.

Some experts note that all three downstream countries are militarily stronger than Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.  Similarly, the downstream countries are superior in both airpower and other land forces.  

The above analysis reportedly suggests that the Amu Darya and Syr Darya river basin has a significant conflict potential.  Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are highly dependent on the two rivers for their national well-being.  Moreover, as Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan lack resources and need hydropower for energy generation, they threaten to further restrict river flow with construction of new dams.