Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Water Shortage Threatens Uzbek Cotton Crop and Regional Stability

Paul Goble

Baku, May 14 – Uzbekistan’s cotton crop, which generates 20 percent of its international earnings, is at risk this year because of a severe water shortage, thus setting the stage both for instability within that country and for increased tensions between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, from which the water comes.
In an article headlined “The Deficit of Irrigation Water Threatens Uzbekistan with Catastrophic Consequences,” Ferghana.ru notes that Uzbekistan’s reservoirs are nearly empty as the cotton planting season there begins and that Kyrgyzstan’s decision to keep water levels behind hydroelectric dams high is one of the reasons.
The Kyrgyz decision has compounded both the long-term economic and population stresses on the region’s water supply and the short-term impact of an unusually dry winter in Uzbekistan. As a result, Uzbek officials predict that the country will have no more than 7 billion cubic meters of water this year, down from 10.5 billion a year ago.
And the real impact of those flows on the Uzbek cotton industry is reflecting in the fact that the Charvak reservoir, some 80 km northwest of Tashkent, has 2.5 times less water than it did a year ago, with no additions expected this year. Other reservoirs are equally hard hit.
Uzbeks “well remember the catastrophic drought of 2000,” Ferghana.ru reports, when “the level of water fell 60 to 80 percent from the average of the last century.” To save the cotton crop that year, Tashkent introduced water rationing and even evacuated people from the hardest hit regions, like Karakalpakia, which is just south of the rapidly disappearing Aral Sea.
The intervening years –except for 2006 --have been better, the news service reports, but the situation now may be even worse than the one in 2000. Indeed, it says, officials from President Islam Karimov on down have been warning of disaster even as they have been reluctant to release the statistics that could show just how bad things are and may become.
Two years ago, Viktor Dukhovniy, an expert of the UN’s World Food Organization, warned that by 2030 “Uzbekistan will not be able to function without additional water supplies” given population pressure and economic development, especially after the glaciers in the Pamirs and Tien-Shan mountains completely meld by 2020.
Last year, in order to try to cope, Karimov prohibited the growing of rice in eight of the 15 oblasts of his country and required farmers in the other seven to get permission, something that saved water but that reduced the production of rice and forced Uzbekistan to ban without any publicity the export of rice and push for more use of wheat.
And speaking to his government in April, Karimov said that Tashkent had been able to ensure that Uzbeks overall had 84 percent of the drinking water they need, a figure that falls to 77 percent in rural areas and one that is especially frightening because it raises the question of what the government can or will do next.
A population that is running out of water and running short of basic food stuffs is unlikely to remain stable, and a government that sees water and thus food just over the border is unlikely to remain pacific, two reminders of just how great an impact water shortages are likely to have in the Central Asian region, even before the Aral Sea disappears two years from now.

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