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A Cold War Over Resources in Central Asia

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Among the points of contention between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, the latter's plan to bolster the Nurek hydroelectric plant (above) with a new project on the Vaksh River has Uzbekistan nervous about disrupted water supply. (Photograph by Socialism Expo/Flickr)

Earlier this year, a U.S. intelligence report predicted that as water shortages become more acute, “water in shared basins will increasingly be used as leverage” over the next 10 years and beyond.  This prediction is already being borne out in places such as Uzbekistan and Tajikistan (map), where long-standing distrust between the two nations has been heightened by new disputes over natural gas and water supplies.

Tajikistan gets nearly 95 percent of its natural gas from Uzbekistan. It also controls upstream access to Uzbekistan’s water supply, a lot of which goes to irrigate the latter’s cotton fields. Citing new contractual commitments of natural gas supplies to China, Uzbekistan interrupted gas deliveries to Tajikistan for half of April 2012, which nearly paralyzed the Tajik economy.

While disruption of Uzbek gas supplies to Tajikistan has been a recurring story, Uzbekistan has a new gripe with its neighbor: Tajikistan’s Roghun hydroelectric dam project on the Vaksh River. One of the nation’s most ambitious projects since 1976, the Roghun will replace Tajikistan’s Nurek hydroelectric station as the world’s tallest dam and meet more than enough of its electricity demand, with a capacity to generate 3.6 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity per year. Uzbekistan has been against Roghun, fearing the dam will disrupt its supply of irrigation water for its cotton fields. Given that Roghun poses no real benefit to Uzbekistan, the Uzbek authorities are concerned that Tajikistan may use it as leverage in future disputes.

Tajik President Emomali Rahmon has been pushing for more investment to complete the Roghun dam in recent years, and Uzbekistan’s pressure on its neighbor has steadily risen in response. Tashkent increased tariffs on its neighbor for railway transit, suspended railway movement linking the two countries in November 2011, and reportedly began dismantling the railway connection in March of this year, basically cutting Tajikistan off from the rest of the world. Over 130 wagons with essential goods destined for Tajikistan and northern Afghanistan continue to stand idle along the Amuzang-Galaba stretch. Reportedly, Uzbekistan refused Tajikistan’s request to allow fuel transports from Turkmenistan via its territory on the grounds that Turkmen and Uzbek pipeline systems functioned separately. Worsening the relations further, borders of both countries remain strewn with land mines since Tajikistan’s civil war in the 1990s, and visa requirements complicate cross-border travel.

Disputes over water in Central Asia are nothing new. But they appear to be getting worse as demand for water grows in the region and upstream countries, such as Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, fail to come to agreements with downstream Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. Water use is deeply politicized, and upstream countries are inclined to exploit it as leverage to obtain certain economic concessions. Many Tajiks consider Roghun important for their country’s energy supply security, particularly after Uzbekistan’s repeated interruptions of gas deliveries. Whereas Tajikistan validates the Roghun project by pointing to its growing demand for electricity, Uzbekistan’s concerns about this venture go beyond a potential shortage of irrigation water.

The dam’s location in a seismically active area is not a minor factor. Situated at an elevation of 335 meters, Roghun could face damage from an earthquake or structural fault that would cause flooding of nearby towns and even settlements in Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. The World Bank, which essentially has been serving as a mediator of the Tajik-Uzbek dispute over Roghun, recommended in 2011 that the country should postpone its construction because of substantial amounts of sediment brought on by the Vakhsh River. Some Tajik observers have pointed out that a layer of salt under the future dam makes it susceptible to landslides if the salt melts.  Security at the facility is another concern, given that Tajikistan faces ongoing problems with extremist elements and porous borders with neighboring Afghanistan. According to Muhiddin Kabiri, chairman of Tajikistan’s Islamic Renaissance Party, his country is not prepared to counter terrorist attacks.

The World Bank will release an independent environmental assessment of the Roghun dam by the end of 2012. But Uzbekistan will stay opposed to the dam regardless of the assessment’s outcome. Given the longtime influence of Uzbekistan on Tajikistan’s internal affairs, including its help in ushering the current government in the capital Dushanbe to power after the Tajik civil war in 1997, the Uzbek leadership might bring an end to Rahmon’s rule through more economic and political pressure, which could provoke domestic discontent over worsening living standards. With presidential elections looming in 2013, the best that the Rahmon’s government could do to prevent that scenario would be to delay the construction of Roghun.