Central Asiaï¿½s dam debacle
by Eelke Kraak
March 01, 2012
Grand engineering schemes have failed to address the political
problems of water management. As climate change dries up the rivers,
regional tensions will escalate, warns Eelke Kraak.
ï¿½Taming the rivers and controlling nature caused one of the worst man-
made environmental disasters in history.ï¿½
The Toktogul Dam in Kyrgyzstan is an imposing structure. The dam
guards the largest and only multi-annual water reservoir in central
Asia. The cascade of five hydroelectric stations downstream produces
90% of Kyrgyzstanï¿½s power. Cotton fields thousands of kilometres away
in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan depend on the release of water from this
The Toktogul is literally and figuratively the ï¿½valveï¿½of the Syr Darya
River. But by relying on large-scale engineering projects to control
the river, these countries have ignored the fundamentally political
nature of water management.
The significance of the Toktogul dam goes beyond its economic
benefits. It was the centre piece of the Soviet Unionï¿½s efforts to
conquer nature in its drive to modernise central Asia. When it became
fully operational in the late 1980s, the project to control the
regionï¿½s rivers seemed complete.
But the costs have been high. The Aral Sea, the terminal lake of the
main sources of water in central Asia, the Syr Darya and Amu Darya
rivers, has shrunk to almost nothing. Many areas surrounding what is
left of the lake are heavily polluted. Moreover, the now independent
Syr Darya riparian countries ï¿½ Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and
Kazakhstan ï¿½ disagree on how the Toktogul should be operated.
In the summers of 2008 and 2009, mismanagement of the Toktogul Dam led
to water shortages in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, as well as lengthy
power cuts in Kyrgyzstan. Subsequent unrest in Kyrgyzstan triggered
the ousting of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev in April 2010, illustrating
the highly political nature of water and energy management.
Climate change will exacerbate the problems: it is predicted that
rapid melting of glaciers that feed central Asian rivers will shrink
water flow over time. The confluence of physical and political changes
suggests that water challenges in central Asia could soon become a
Todayï¿½s crisis has its roots in earlier disastrous policies. It was
water that first brought the Russians to central Asia in the
nineteenth century. Irrigated agriculture had been present for more
than 8,000 years, but the Tsarist colonisers realised that
agricultural production, notably cotton, could be expanded easily and
rapidly. Despite, their optimism, managing the waters of the Syr Darya
and Amu Darya Rivers proved a huge challenge for the hydrologists,
engineers and bureaucrats involved.
Scarcity of water was never the problem. On average, the region has
enough water to grow sufficient crops to feed its own population and
earn foreign currency through exports. The problem, rather, is a huge
geographic, seasonal and inter-annual variability in water availability.
In response, between 1950 and 1990, the Soviet Union built hundreds of
dams, canals and artificial lakes. Uzbekistanï¿½s Hunger Steppe was
transformed from an uninhabited desert into a cotton factory of
300,000 hectares. The Kara Kum Canal, when completed in 1988,
transferred 12.9 cubic kilometres of water ï¿½ almost 15% of the Amu
Darya River ï¿½ to irrigate parts of the Kara Kum Desert. The Toktogul
Dam, the largest of the lot, was finished in 1973 and served to
control the inter-annual variability of water resources and to ensure
that there would always be sufficient water for irrigation.
For Soviet planners, dams were symbols of development and
modernisation. The Soviet Unionï¿½s hydraulic mission was to conquer
nature by transforming free flowing rivers into an economic resource.
In absence of democracy, dams were also an important source of
legitimacy for the Soviet Union.
But this hydraulic mission caused the decline of the Aral Sea. Once
the worldï¿½s fourth largest saltwater lake, damming and diverting the
Syr Darya and Amu Darya Rivers radically decreased inflow into the
Aral Sea; today only 10% of its 1960 volume remains.
The consequences have been dire: salinisation, polluted dust storms
and a grim economic outlook for those living around the lake. Life
expectancy for people in this region has dropped to 50 years and
Karakalpakstan, an area south of the lake, now has one of the highest
incidences of tuberculosis in the world.
The ecosystem of the lake and surrounding areas has been devastated.
By taming the rivers and controlling nature, the ruling elites caused
one of the worst man-made environmental disasters in history.
When the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, there was hope that the newly
independent states ï¿½ Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan
and Kazakhstan ï¿½ would work together to address the environmental
problems. Initially, a number of institutions to manage the regionï¿½s
water were founded, including the International Fund for Saving the
Aral Sea and the Interstate Committee for Water Coordination. But,
despite leadersï¿½ passionate pleas, little has been done to alleviate
the water problems of central Asia over the last 20 years. As some
observers acknowledge, it is all paperwork and no action.
In fact, the challenges for water management have only grown since the
Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers became cross-border resources. Tensions
have escalated, notably between downstream Uzbekistan and upstream
Kyrgyzstan. The operation of the mighty Toktogul has been central to
The Toktogul dam has multiple functions: it is both the main supplier
of water for downstream irrigation, and the main source of electricity
for Kyrgyzstan. The trouble is that Kyrgyzstan wants to discharge
water from the reservoir in winter to generate electricity, while
Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan prefer to discharge water in summer, when
they need it for irrigation.
In the past, Kyrgyzstan released water from the reservoir in the
summer, in return for gas and oil from Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. But
this exchange of resources collapsed when the Soviet Union broke down
in 1991. Disputes over the timing of water discharge have brought the
two countries to the brink of conflict. Regional institutions have set
rules concerning who can use how much water, but no agreement has
dealt with the question of when they should receive it.
World Bank analysis indicates all states would profit from sustainable
and cooperative water management. But disagreements over the
management of Toktogul and other water problems remain unresolved.
There are two key reasons for this.
First, control over water resources is still tightly linked to the
legitimacy of the political elites. Timothy Mitchell, an American
political scientist, proposed in his book Rule of Experts that ï¿½large
dams [offer] a way to build not just irrigation and power systems, but
Indeed, the dams and water management systems of central Asia became
key to the nation-building task its countries faced after 1991. The
massive irrigation network in the desert areas of Uzbekistan is a
source of pride for the country. The fact that the Toktogul provides
90% of the Kyrgyzstanï¿½s electricity production is too. Unfortunately,
these goals of water management contradict each other.
Second, the two countries disagree about what water is. Kyrgyzstan
adopted a set of laws in 2001, classifying water as a commodity like
oil and gas. This could potentially mean that downstream Uzbekistan
and Kazakhstan would have to pay for the storage costs and maintenance
of reservoirs, if not for the water itself.
Uzbekistan, on the other hand, officially considers water a free,
public good, a view proposed by Marxist-Leninist ideology. It also
argues that water comes from God, and can therefore not be traded. In
reality, Uzbekistan objects to those laws because it does not want to
pay Kyrgyzstan for water.
Fundamental disagreements over whether water is a tradable commodity,
and the fact that regional hydro-politics is linked with domestic
power struggles, have prevented sustainable cooperation. Violent
conflict has only been prevented by ad hoc solutions proposed by
national leaders and a relative abundance of water. Given the rapid
melting of glaciers that feed central Asian rivers, however, leaders
cannot count on this level of water supply indefinitely. More water is
predicted to flow into the basin over the next 20 years, but to
decline rapidly and unprecedentedly after that. An agreement is
In 2009, the presidents of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan proposed the
resurrection of an old Soviet solution to central Asiaï¿½s water issues:
to divert water from the Siberian Yenisei and Ob rivers to the Aral
Sea and the wider region. The plan is financially unviable, and
unlikely to be carried out. But if it was, it would unlikely address
the real problems. Grand engineering schemes may provide legitimacy to
unpopular regimes, but they fail to account for the fundamental
political nature of water. Water management requires a political, not
a technical solution.
Eelke Kraak is a DPhil candidate at Oxford University's School of
Geography and the Environment.
Homepage image by Firespeaker shows the Toktogul Dam.
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