Talk25 on Water Cooperation in Central Asia: History and Trends

Thursday, 27 September 2018


There are 263 transboundary river basins and approximately 300 transboundary aquifers that cover almost half the Earth’s surface (UNECE/UNESCO 2015). Overexploitation of shared basins can have severe consequences for the sustainability of water supplies, causing international tension if those impacts are felt more keenly on the other side of a border. Hence, transboundary water cooperation is critically important as it can reap numerous benefits including international trade, climate change adaptation, economic growth, food security, improved governance and regional integration.

LEAD Pakistan hosted an interactive webinar session on “Water Cooperation in Central Asia: history and trends” with Dr. Iskandar Abdullaev, working as Director of Regional Environmental Center (CAREC) for Central Asia since year 2013. Dr. Iskandar Abdullaev has over 25 years of experience in irrigation & drainage management, water institutions, allocation and distribution of water in Afghanistan as well as all Central Asian countries. He received his PhD in water and land management and MSc in Hydro technical Engineering. He is a member of International Water Resources Association (IWRA), Board Member of Central Asian Research and Development Network (CARDN) and on the editorial board of few internationally peer reviewed journals.

The talk focused on the approaches and instruments for cooperation in transboundary river basins with a special focus on the Central Asian states comprising Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Water is a valuable and scarce resource in the region and can be seen as one of its most significant security risks. Dr. Iskandar Abdullaev talked at length about the pragmatic approaches and trust building through bilateral and regional projects that could mutually benefit the central Asian countries in developing solid mechanisms for stronger and broader cooperation.

Roadmap of Regional Water Cooperation in Central Asia

Transboundary water was viewed as a technical issue in Central Asia in the years 1990-2000s as water allocation rules from the Soviet period still applied and regional organizations were set up. Starting from 2000 onwards, transboundary water began to be perceived as an economic and political issue. Developing new arrangements and agreements became the focus and there was an increase of contestation of water cooperation principles. Since 2015, the outlook on transboundary cooperation has shifted to pragmatic approaches and effective solutions due to the emerging security paradigm of the shared water systems.

Transboundary Water Cooperation: Challenges

Shared river basins are hosts to a multitude of challenges as they are constrained by multifaceted social, economic and environmental processes that require decision-making in a holistic manner involving many diverse stakeholders. After the collapse of the Soviet system in 1991, Almaty agreement was signed by the five states in 1992 on Cooperation in the Field of Joint Water Resources Management and Conservation of Interstate Sources. However, challenges to transboundary cooperation emerged as the states became more independent and had varied national plans and interests and competing demand for shared water in terms of volume and timing. Moreover, regional organizations are focused on large river systems only and small transboundary water courses fall outside of the cooperation network. The water-rich upper riparian countries - Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan - use water predominantly for hydropower production in winter. On the other hand, the downstream countries including Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, mainly use water for irrigating crops in summer. The scarcity of water resources, inappropriate management and disparate interests make the distribution of water in Central Asia a major source of potential tension among the five states.

Transboundary Water Cooperation: Case Studies from Central Asia

The Republic of Kazakhstan and the Kyrgyz Republic share the waters of transboundary Central Asian rivers Chu and Talas, which provide essential resources for irrigation of the vast agricultural lands in both countries as well as opportunities for the generation of hydropower. Whereas all facilities for rivers’ regulation, such as dams, water reservoirs and canals, are located upstream in the territory of Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan depends on the operation and proper maintenance of these facilities. As a result, the establishment of a sustainable coordination structure, that includes a permanent secretariat as well as experts and working groups, enabled joint and transparent decision-making on water allocation and maintenance costs by the two Parties, as well as relevant information sharing, efficient implementation of joint projects, prevention and rapid settlement of problematic situations in the Chu and Talas river basins. Isfara transboundary river basin, shared by Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, is another good example of regional cooperation as it incorporates elements of Integrated Water Resource Management (IWRM) including long-term planning and institutions.

Transboundary Water Cooperation: Approaches and Instruments

It is pertinent to understand that there is a strong interlinking relationship between water system at all levels. A deterioration in water quality at the local level will have impacts on the national and regional level and vice versa. Similarly, improvement in water management and governance at local and national levels will enhance regional level management of water resources. Practical approaches for sustainable regional water management include, but is not limited to, exchange of water for fuel/energy, compensation for water releases, water-energy consortium(s). Countries can enhance regional cooperation through implementation of local and national plans focusing on water improvement and focused cooperation agreements on both multi-country and bi-lateral levels. Becoming signatory to International obligations and conventions, initiation of joint working groups and institutions, data sharing and capacity building of professionals improves management of transboundary waters. Lack of cooperation leads to reduced agricultural productivity, higher energy prices and threat of energy insecurity. The cost of inefficient cooperation can approximately add up to 4.5 billion USD per year.


Regional water cooperation has been a non-linear process in the Central Asia due to the collapse of Soviet system and development of independent states. Socio-economic and political reforms in Central Asian countries has given rise to new relationships at the regional level due to the increased political influence on water cooperation. Interstate Coordination Water Commission (ICWC), Interstate Commission on Sustainable Development (ICSD), Executive Committee of International Fund for saving the Aral Sea (EC IFAS) are some of the regional level organizations that prioritize sustainable allocation and management of water resources. The management of transboundary waters is one aspect of the environment and security nexus in Central Asia facing extensive and varied environmental challenges but cooperation is the only viable solution. Integrated approach to transboundary water resource management based on legal and institutional frameworks and shared benefits and costs is the way forward and the regional case studies from Central Asia are good examples of it.