Steppe: What’s wrong with water. Discussion on water security in Kazakhstan and Central Asia

Stefanos Xenarios is an environmental economist by training with a focus on water resources and climate change aspects, currently Associate Proferssor at Nazarbayev University. He initially acquired 3-years of postdoctoral experience in India and Ethiopia as a staff member of the International Water Management Institute (IWMI). Subsequently, Stefanos did research on climate change and agriculture in South Asia, based at the Norwegian Institute of Bioeconomy (NIBIO), and worked as Head of the Water and Energy Security Unit at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Office in Tajikistan. Xenarios is Editor in the Central Asian Journal of Water Research (CAJWR) while he is a committee member of the International Water Association’s Specialist Group on Statistics and Economics.

We discussed with the expert the issues of water security in Kazakhstan and Central Asia.


What is water security?


Stefanos Xenarios


The concept of water security is not widely known yet. The reason lies in its wide interpretation. Some people believe that water security is related to national welfare, others – to the protection of water resources, some others – to water quality. In fact, there is a precise definition for water security that covers most of the interpretations above and was introduced by UN-Water in 2013.

If we take the perception of water quantity as a parameter of water security, which is related to the case of Kazakhstan, we notice that Kazakhstan is highly dependent on the freshwater discharges from neighbouring countries. About  half of the freshwater volume comes to Kazakhstan from outside of the country. Inevitably, water security in Kazakhstan has been widely interpreted into water quantity and water scarcity as for instance occurred the last summer with the very low water volumes of Syr Darya in south Kazakhstan.


What is wrong with water security in Kazakhstan and Central Asia?

There is not much water coming from upstream rivers, which caused some droughts the last summer, and it has become a major problem for the southern parts of the country this year. The problem is partly related to the water released from the upstream countries of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan and partly from the water retained in Uzbekistan mostly from agricultural use.

Some water quality issues are also related to the transboundary surface water coming from China. It is known that there are enterprises in west China near the borderline area with Kazakhstan that deal with leather processing tanneries and affect the quality of the water.


This does not mean that Kazakhstan does not have its share of responsibility for water security within the country. Kazakhstan should also take care of drastically improving the management of its water resources. However, it cannot be neglected that many water quantity and quality problems originate from transboundary rivers where Kazakhstan is a recipient country.


We must not also overlook or ignore the fact that there is still a very high level of inefficient water use in agriculture. Agricultural water occupies a huge share in Central Asia (over 85%). So, when we talk about the actual use of water, we mainly imply the water used for agriculture. Industrial water in Kazakhstan occupies about 35%, and Kazakhstan is the only country in Central Asia that uses a considerable amount of water for industrial purposes.

All other CA countries use water mostly for irrigation. Water that comes to Kazakhstan from neighbouring countries is mainly used for irrigation and hydropower. The issue is not that much the water scarcity and accessibility for Kazakhstan, rather the release of water from upstream countries of CA , especially when we talk about Syr-Darya river. For example, Kyrgyzstan saves water in the summer, as Kyrgyz aim at increasing the capacity of water for hydropower. In turn, they release water in winter when there is a need for hydropower energy by inevitably creating overflowing problems in downstream countries like Kazakhstan.

For  Kazakhstan, hydropower is not very important as in the case of upstream countries due to the endowment on fossil fuels and high capacity potential on other renewables. For the avoidance of winter flooding and reservation of water for the summer season, Kazakhstan is aiming at building various reservoirs for multiple water uses, a policy that is currently ongoing.


The overall situation with weather extremes and not well-coordinated water use among CA countries is a little worrisome. However, it can be improved by using water skillfully and efficiently, especially for agricultural purposes.


How are the transboundary basins of Kazakhstan related to the problem of shallowing of rivers and lakes?

In Kazakhstan, six out of eight basins are transboundary, and two relatively water-scarce basins are not transboundary. I think there should be more serious efforts to empower existing mechanisms and better coordinate water policy on a local and regional level. We conducted a survey within the Graduate School of Public Policy in Nazarbayev University and identified that most water experts support the setup of new institutions and mechanisms on water policy in CA, as they are not satisfied with the existing ones. It was claimed that currently there are few or no effective mechanisms at all.


Is a water conflict possible in Central Asia?

I don’t think that it is possible. However, there are some problems with water distribution in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan related to water distribution. There are also some local frictions between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan related to water releases from small reservoirs and agricultural canals, though the situation has been eased in the last months.

There are admittedly few only binding agreements on water use in CA, for instance for Syr-Darya is dated from the 90’s which also reflects the situation of the Soviet times and not the challenges met nowadays. There are also agreements in many tributary rivers of Syr-Darya, established in the 50s or 60s with totally different water volumes and land use conditions than nowadays, which need to be revised. We cannot have agreements dated about 70 years ago. Also, we do not have enough binding agreements, we have consultative agreements where the countries shall not mandatorily follow.


Is there a threat of a decrease in river flow in Kazakhstan from the territory of neighbouring states?

The decrease in river flow is happening partly because the neighbouring countries retain the water for hydropower and irrigation. The oncoming challenges from climate change will add more strain to the water allocation in Kazakhstan. It has to be noted though that the climatic projections do not show a unanimous decrease in the amount of surface water in Central Asia. There was some noticeable reduction the last year which had to do with seasonal aspects and poor water management practices. It is expected that the glacier melting, especially the low-elevated ones (below 4,000 sea level) will increase the water flow for the next 20-25 years by however changing the water distribution, especially in the spring and summer seasons. There is a challenge to be met by climate change and poor management, I think though that there is little hydrological research and monitoring yet in Central Asia done towards this direction.


What is the correlation between overpopulation with limited water resources?

I don’t think that Central Asia has a major problem with overpopulation. There is no such overpopulation in the region as it exists in South Asia, India, Bangladesh, and Indonesia. The water consumption per capita on urban use is much lower than in Europe and the United States. The consumption in Central Asia is mainly related to agriculture. Because agriculture has been developed in the region since the Soviet times and still many patterns remain the same, the management of water consumption needs major improvement. Therefore, I do not think that the number of populations can play a major role, there is more of a problem in the improvement of agricultural water policy.


What should be done to avoid conflict between states?


I would strongly suggest that the water should have an (economic) value. For example, in agriculture, which is now given nearly free of charge, water has no value. Irrigation doesn’t pay off and farmers pay a very nominal price for agricultural water. Why is this happening? Because farmers don’t make big profits to compensate for all the resources, let alone the water use, but this is another issue that needs to be discussed.


In addition, we have groundwater reserves that need to be considered for different water uses and have not yet been fully explored, and there is not a lot of research on how to further explore groundwater reserves. More broadly, more research is needed in terms of water resources management in Central Asia. There are very few water specialists in the entire region and most of them are seniors. Unfortunately, many water professionals do not work in Kazakhstan as they are poorly paid. They also have few career prospects and inevitably are leaving the country.


How does this relate to climate change?

Climate change is a problem, but not graver for Kazakhstan than for other countries. More attention should be paid to the negotiations with the upstream and other neighbouring countries, on water discharges and quality standards.

And in terms of extreme weather conditions, they have always been and will remain, though more acute due to climate change as the latest IPPC report has indicated.  There is now evidence that the climate is increasing the frequency of extreme weather events. But it is not solely these extremes that can create a water crisis in the country. In any case, I think that Kazakhstan and the Central Asian countries should be better prepared for such weather conditions through coordinated and not unilateral actions.


What are the alternative water sources and how effective are they?

Groundwater needs to be better researched. I would not say that it should be used mostly for irrigation, because it can be depleted easily and the replenishment could be extremely slow. As far as the western part of the country is concerned, I would advise revisiting desalination options in the Caspian Sea region.


What instruments of natural regulation can be applied in Kazakhstan and Central Asia?

СTraditional socio-economic instruments and advanced technologies should be used. In addition, I believe that one of the very important management tools is the improved regulation and governance of water resources. Much is lacking here, since the institutions are weak, they lack credibility. For example, Balkhash-Alakol has one of the strongest River Basin Councils for the monitoring of river basin management. However, these committees have only an advisory role and there is little they can do. They express their views on water, but they need more institutional power. In addition, basin organizations require more economic and technical power and oversight. I mean they should have better equipment to conduct hydrological monitoring and surveillance. 


How does water pollution oppose water regulation?

The issues of water pollution in Kazakhstan are more important than the issues of water scarcity to my perception. This has been a problem and will remain so in Kazakhstan because there are many industries, especially mining and quarrying, that use water either as an input or to dilute the final product. If the polluted water is released into the rivers untreated or poorly treated it is difficult to restore its previous status. Tthe issue of water quality, to my opinion, is more important than climate change, water availability and other issues, because water quality can have major impacts on urban but also agricultural water use. There should be stricter rules for companies to take water treatment precautions. If other countries are capable of good regulations on industrial water use, then so Kazakhstan can also do so.


In general, water volume in Kazakhstan is not such a critical problem, there is not so little water overall in the country, however, it is unequally distributed. I think that Kazakhstan is an economically powerful country, and it has a huge potential for improving water management by also showing a good paradigm for the neighbouring countries.


Source: Steppe.