CENTRAL ASIA WATER CONFLICT LONG IN MAKING, HAS MAJOR REGIONAL IMPLICATIONS
It might have seemed like another post-Soviet dustup, this time between the two most unstable, impoverished and obscure ex-Soviet republics there are: Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
The day or so of bloodletting late last week left at least 49 dead, hundreds injured, and more than 1,000 homeless.
The clashes occurred along the border between the two countries – one still not fully demarcated since Soviet times, with pockets of disputed exclaves and enclaves.
In a sad, comic-opera start to the melee, locals started by hurling rocks at each other before availing themselves of automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, according to local accounts, before rag-tag military or border guard units joined in.
They were not skirmishing over scrub. Or, some perceived historical rights to “sacred lands”.
And it is not a new issue – the only one which – especially in the age of climate change – is coming ever more to the fore.
Small-scale conflagrations went largely unreported as international news agencies abandoned the region in the past years. This blowup was much bigger.
“It is a fact that hundreds of kilometres between the countries of the frontier are still not demarcated,” the Central Asia expert Deirdre Tynan told The Tribune.
“But at the end, it is about water,” she continued.
ALL ABOUT WATER RIGHTS
Water, instead of some ancient symbolism, as the detonator.
Water – vital to farmers and residents on both sides of the murky “frontier”.
Water, because the region is often parched.
Water, because without irrigation for otherwise arid and marginal agricultural land, large parts of the region are dust-bowl-like wastelands incapable of growing anything capable of providing sustenance.
Water, as without it, having access to drinking water makes life unlivable.
Analyst Tynan lived for years in Central Asia as the regional analyst for the International Crisis Group and is the author of a renowned report on the seriousness of the water crisis in the area and its potential t0 lead to violence. See: https://www.crisisgroup.org/europe-central-asia/central-asia/233-water-pressures-central-asia
“It affects the entire region,” added Ms. Tynan.
NEW BORDERS, NEW ISSUES
Central Asia has not in modern history – until the Soviet breakup – had fixed frontiers. Instead, it was an enormous satrapy-like conglomeration of ill-defined swathes of land.
And before that, possessions belonging to a long line of empires or raiders stretch back not centuries, but millennia. The Xianua tribe, nomads who initially swept into part of present-day China, came calling in approximately 787 B.C. Zhongzheng, 599 B.C. The Medians and Achaemenids both laid claim to parts of present-day Central Asia. And later, the Mongols.
But during the last 300 years, this was a redoubt of the Russian Empire.
That meant no fixed borders.
Water, nonetheless, the movement of which can now be the subject of bilateral or multilateral disputes, is no longer a moot point or confined to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
“It’s always been a huge regional issue,” she told the Tribune. “Now people are just starting to notice outside the area, but it’s not anything of a surprise to people within the area,” she said.
The two countries, while under Soviet rule, used to be “exporters” of water to the drier Central Asian countries of Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.
The latest incident, she pointed out, came as a result of course – a water-related issue. Kyrgyzstan this spring said it wanted to construct a reservoir along a river between the two countries. Dushanbe cried foul, citing potential water disruptions in Tajikistan.
Smaller-scale skirmishes, sometimes fatal, have been occurring for years between irregulars or border forces from both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
CEASE-FIRE A HOPEFUL SIGN, BUT FOR HOW LONG?
Following the violence, ministers of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan agreed to a “cease-fire”. This is a bit unusual since the two countries were not – at least formally – engaged in a formal armed conflict.
Local news agencies cited possible troop movements in the area as a sign of further impending danger. But there were no independent confirmations of more violence.
Tynan, the Central Asia water expert, said that the dispute hardly involved only the two small, impoverished countries.
She said that Uzbekistan, which is by far the biggest country in the region, has a useful role to play.
‘Tashkent can show its desire to work constructively in order to de-escalate the situation,” she said, adding the country, as a neighbor to both countries, had a paramount role.
She added this is especially important as Uzbekistan has in the last few years embarked on a bold series of economic reforms and efforts to smooth over tensions with both Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.
Uzbekistan had serious political issues with both its two smaller neighbors following the Soviet breakup. Tajikistan is considered a conduit for heroin from Afghanistan and is feared for radical religious infiltration. Kyrgyzstan, where there is a large ethnic Uzbek minority, evolved into another ethnic conflict in the early 2000s between local Uzbeks and Kyrgyz.
Complicating the fact is that all three – Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan – have – despite the “stan” suffix – very different characters and histories.
Uzbeks – the ethnic Uzbeks of that country – have traditionally been sedentary farmers, at least in rural areas, and they speak a Turkic-based language.
Kyrgyz, by contrast, were historically nomads and many Kyrgyz farmers still spend the summer in remote, high mountain areas, descending for the winter months.
Tajiks are a Persian-speaking (Dari) ethnic group with more in common with many in Afghanistan, culturally.
And all three countries have significant minorities of the other groups.
Needless to say, for years this has led to considerable suspicion among them.
Ms. Tynan, the regional expert, says that the water issues are not irresolvable, but will take considerable political will on all sides to come to some sort of workable agreement.
“It is more a problem of resource-sharing and distribution,” she said, adding that there were huge amounts of water wasted due to obsolete irrigation practices or old equipment. Uzbekistan, for instance, uses enormous amounts of water to irrigate hydro-intensive cotton fields.
The presidents of the two countries – Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan – spoke by telephone on Saturday, their governments said
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also spoke with both leaders and urged adherence to the ceasefire agreement, Moscow’s Foreign Ministry reported.
Both countries are nominal Kremlin allies and house Russian military bases.