In 2019, Aga Khan Foundation (AKF)'s Nick McGrath travelled to the Uzbek-Tajik-Kyrgyz border regions to find out how the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) is working to help ease tensions over resources

An article by Nicholas McGrath, posted on AKF’s website on March 22, 2021, in particular, notes that the sudden and dramatic collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 has had a huge impact on regional cooperation and stability.

Localized, border conflicts over the control of resources, particularly around irrigation water and grazing lands, are increasingly affecting local, regional, and international relations.

The Soviet era reportedly saw massive industrialization and investment in infrastructure and public services in Central Asia, but left a complex legacy of ethnic tension and environmental problems.

Tortuous, centrally planned borders crisis-cross the region, often leaving Uzbek, Kyrgyz and Tajik communities on different sides of increasingly harder borders, but reliant on the same shared natural resources of land  and water.

Water for irrigating the primary crop in the region, wheat, and land for grazing livestock are under intense pressure, but sources have been partitioned across hard borders.

In the ensuing collapse, government budgets disappeared overnight, and transition from a state centric model of free services to a market economy saw the establishment of community-run Water User Associations (WUA), to relieve pressure on local government. 

WUAs are elected bodies and local farmers pay a small service fee to be members. They exist on all sides of the border and their role in mediating local conflict has become essential to ensuring access to water and heading off resource disputes in their respective territories.

The legacy of the new borders has also seen clusters of marooned ‘enclaves’, concentrated around the fragile borders of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, according to the article.

With the support of UKAid from the British Foreign Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO), AKF is working with the Mountain Society Development Support Programme (MSDSP) and local grass roots organizations, CAMP Alatoo and the Roza Otunbayeva Initiative (ROI), the University of Central Asia (UCA) as well as the Accelerate Prosperity initiative, to tackle the sources of resource instability in the border areas of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

The program entitled ‘Improving Stability and Natural Resource Management in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan’ has been working with local organizations such as the WUAs, Community Drinking Water Users Union (CDWUU) and Pasture User Associations (PUA) to improve access to and management of irrigation water, drinking water and grazing lands by rehabilitating existing infrastructure in the border areas affected by conflict.

The program has reportedly rehabilitated 109 sites to date.

More than 300,000 people in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have benefitted to date from the program, through improvements to irrigation canals, drinking water systems, access routes to pasture lands, as well as to improved pasture infrastructure for livestock such as veterinary and watering sites.