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Shared Water Resources
Whose Water?

By Tumurdavaa Bayarsaihan( )
Project Officer, East and Central Asia Department


Water is at the heart of an increasing number of international conflicts as nations compete for dwindling freshwater resources.

There are about 215 international rivers and 300 groundwater basins and aquifers that are shared by two or more countries.

Nine countries in the Asia and Pacific region — Bangladesh, Cambodia, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Thailand, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Viet Nam — rely on international rivers to supply more than a third of their annual water resources.

Of these, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Viet Nam rely on water from external sources for more than 65% of their annual water resources.

COTTON OR DRINKING WATER? The rivers of the Aral Sea Basin are used to irrigate cotton, rice, and wheat crops—directly competing with drinking water needs

Nations in the region acknowledge that a fair and equitable way of sharing water resources must be found.

Two examples of progress so far include the 1996 treaty signed by Bangladesh and India for managing flows in the Ganges-Brahmaputra system, which represents a major victory for rational approaches to shared water resources; and the Central Asian republics’ (CARs) creation in 1992 of the Interstate Water Coordinating Committee and in 1993 of the International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea under which Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan recognized their common strategic, economic, and environmental interests to facilitate water sharing and common solutions to related environmental issues.

Since independence a decade ago, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan have tried to develop a fair and rational basis for sharing their water and energy resources.

With their legacy of the Soviet era, these republics have dealt with vast inefficiencies in water use and unprecedented ecological devastation during their transition to market economies. Their cooperation in sharing water resources is critical to the region’s long-term prosperity and security.


Strategies Lack Consistency

"Agriculture is the biggest contributor to environmental degradation as a result of the misuse and overuse of water"

The republics have faced many challenges in managing the water resources of the Syr Darya and Amu Darya river catchments that comprise the Aral Sea basin in Central Asia.

In September 2002, ADB conducted regional consultations in Almaty, Kazakhstan, to learn more about their shared water resources and to explore the associated issues, concerns, legal and institutional constraints, and opportunities for regional cooperation.

The lessons learned from these consultations will be highlighted in discussions under the theme “Shared Water Resources,” to be sponsored by ADB at the 3rd World Water Forum to be held in March in Kyoto.

Through the Almaty consultations, ADB learned that countries are developing new water management strategies and codes, but that they sometimes lacked consistency with one another and with agreed upon regional priorities. To be effective, regional water management bodies in Central Asia required strengthening to foster more effective decision making.

Agriculture, which consumes the most water in the region, is a huge issue. Diversions to supply this sector have resulted in severe water shortages in the Aral Sea basin. The sea itself has diminished by more than one half in the past 4 decades.

In the environmentally damaged and economically depressed countries of Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, the priority is to improve water quality and increase supplies to meet basic human needs.

In these countries, agriculture generates much of the gross domestic product and employs much of its workforce. Agriculture, however, is also the biggest contributor to environmental degradation as a result of the misuse and overuse of water. While reducing the amount of water used in agriculture may improve these countries’ environments, it may also prompt short-term economic damage.

The CARs depend on the rivers of the Aral Sea basin to irrigate cotton, rice, and wheat crops. However, they also depend on them for drinking water and hydroelectric power. In the upstream countries — the Kyrgyz Republic and Tajikistan — the rivers are used primarily for hydroelectricity, especially during winter. In summer, the downstream states of Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan rely on the rivers for irrigation.


Upstream Usage Prompts Tension

NEIGHBORS 215 international rivers and 300 groundwater basins and aquifers are shared by two or more countries

This recent shift in upstream water use from agriculture to hydropower generation has created tension over managing the region’s transboundary waters. As this example shows, despite the CARs’ progress in improving cooperation in managing shared water resources over the past decade, many issues remain unresolved.

Proposed amendments are being drafted to improve the implementation of the 1998 agreement on water and energy use in the Syr Darya basin. The agreement is set to be extended for 5 years in 2003, and several new provisions relating to interstate compensation and long-term hydrologic fluctuations are among those being considered.

The upstream states of the Kyrgyz Republic and Tajikistan acknowledge that water-sharing rules that still exist from the former Soviet era are no longer appropriate.

Under these, upstream states are restricted in the amount of irrigated land they can develop based on correspondingly low water allocations, and this has had a significant impact on agriculture and food security in these countries.

Complicating the issue is the decline over the past decade in the allocation of resources for operating and maintaining water infrastructure in the countries of the Aral Sea basin as they struggle to rebuild their economies.

Although all the countries in the basin have regulations or laws covering the price of providing water services for various purposes, the pricing levels and collection of user fees have been insufficient to improve water resource infrastructure.

International agreements have also been unable to resolve financing problems associated with the operation and maintenance of water management facilities—such as dams and canals — of interstate significance.

And, while there has been progress on managing shared irrigation facilities between Kazakhstan and the Kyrgyz Republic, many issues remain unresolved for multipurpose facilities shared by several countries.

Resolving the complicated issues concerning shared water resources will never be an easy task. But as shown by the CARs and Bangladesh and India, progress can be made in achieving rational water use.

Read more about regional cooperation.

Find out how ADB and its partners address the problem on water in the Asia-Pacific region

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