Water Security in Central Asia: an overview

Water Security in Central Asia: an overview

Authors: Stefanos Xenarios, Ronan Shenhav, Iskandar Abdullaev, Alberto Mastellari

Transboundary Water Resources, Water Resources Management, Water Governance, Climate Change, Central Asia

Central Asia (CA) is one of the few regions in the world where water security is inextricably linked with energy, food, and the environment. A vast network of rivers flows into the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers, the two main water bodies of CA, which cross the entire region before emptying into the Aral Sea. The upstream countries of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan host the mountain ranges of Karakoram, Pamir, and Tien Shan, called the ‘’water towers’’ of CA which accommodate some of the largest glaciers in the world outside of the polar regions. The downstream countries of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan are situated on large plains, which have been mainly converted to extensive irrigated lands while they are also endowed with abundant hydrocarbon (coal, oil, and gas) resources. 

Water Security during Soviet era

All CA countries share a common past in the Soviet Union, during which water security was understood as a multidimensional factor dependent on energy, agricultural and environmental aspects. In the Soviet era, the water-rich upstream countries provided water for irrigation to downstream countries in spring and summer. In exchange, they were supplied with coal, oil and gas for heating and electricity in the winter months.

Upstream countries also received staple crops and other agricultural and industrial products. In the early 1960s, agricultural mechanisation took place in the entire region, leading to intensified irrigation systems. Irrigated farming was strongly prioritised to cover the needs of the highly water-demanding cotton crops through the construction of numerous reservoirs, extensive water supply and drainage networks, and large pumping stations. However, the agricultural intensification came with a heavy price on freshwater resources: the unsustainable irrigation practices have drained more than 90% of the Aral Sea by resulting in one of the most severe human-induced environmental disasters.

Challenges of post-Soviet period

After the five CA republics gained independence in 1991, the centrally planned water and energy management systems from Soviet era had to be substantially reshaped towards market-oriented approaches. Energy allocation between the countries became a source of conflict due to the price differences between upstream hydro-energy and downstream fuel-produced energy. This has led to deteriorating relations between the countries, highlighting the regional resource imbalance. The transition from Soviet republics to state sovereignty in CA has involved a shift from regional to national policy on natural resources, with major effects for water security. The five countries were initially bound together ‘‘by history, by culture and geography, but also because of decisions made during the Soviet period’’. However, the regime change which followed the breakup of the Soviet Union led to the need to securitise water sources at the national level, mainly resulting from the need to securitise the national economies of the new states.

Climate change affects water resources management

The concern on water resources management and security in Central Asia has been increased with the climate variability and change. Studies strongly indicate that global warming will heavily affect water security in CA. The region’s glaciers have been melting more quickly in recent decades: 20% of the glacial ice cover in the Aral Sea basin was lost between 1957 and 1980; decreasing by 10% in the last 50 years. However, the exact effects of these developments for the region’s water resources are to be debated.

Transforming the water sector in CA

The water sector in the CA countries has undergone serious transformations, and major reforms are still taking place. Many researchers have observed these changes through the prism of standard international processes such as irrigation management transfer and participatory irrigation management. However, most of these perspectives were short-lived, since the trajectory of water sector transformations in CA has focused on strengthening the role of the state in day-to-day water management. At present, there are several on-going efforts to transform the water sector in CA with different success rate in each case. Indicatively, attempts have been made to ‘’export’’ experiences of water management from other regions with similar features to CA. Although some initiatives have been well adopted, in other instances the water sector reforms in CA seem to be mainly endogenous. Also, the concept of the water-energy-food nexus has recently been introduced in CA as a paradigm to address the major challenges of water security and management. However, it is feared that out-dated infrastructure in all sectors (irrigation, energy, and food processing) may create greater problems rather than bringing benefits from intersectoral cooperation. Water resources governance and management in a transboundary context are key elements of regional stability and security for CA. Over the 25 years of the post-Soviet period, water issues have been transformed from a techno-economic perspective to a socio-political approach. Institutional structures for joint allocation of common water resources were established as early as 1992, including the Interstate Commission for Water Coordination, the Interstate Council for the Aral Sea Basin, and the International Fund to Save the Aral Sea, without however meeting all expectations.


The current state of water affairs in the region seems to be leaning more towards the coordination of five water national policies and less towards regional cooperation over water governance and management. The notion of water security emphasised by all CA countries since 2015 has been one in which effective and pragmatic solutions are sought. Efforts to promote more regional transboundary cooperation by creating a single water policy for CA may not be that fruitful on the short term. Instead, the main focus for regional cooperation in CA may shift to strengthening efforts in coordinating different water policies of the five countries towards mutual goals. Water security in CA is undeniably a multidimensional concept—perceived differently by each country. Diverse priorities and objectives for water use management at the national level may undermine water security in the region through excessive demands and unilateral initiatives. The new government in Uzbekistan has brought a progressive policy dialogue with all its neighbours on water resources management since 2017, offering hope for a compromise between upstream energy needs and downstream agricultural and food demands. There have also been attempts to enhance the regionalisation of infrastructure, trade, and services among the five countries and promote cohesive economic development. The political-economic approach that is currently being followed for water management and security in CA is greatly affected by the surrounding economic developments in the region. The common desire of all five countries to promote economic welfare and growth on the national level, will more than likely also benefit future water security and planning on a regional level.