Saturday, June 28, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Water Needs Must Unite Central Asian States Not Drive Them Apart, Ecologist Says

Paul Goble

Vienna, June 28 – Most analysts see competition for water driving the five countries of Central Asia apart, possibly even leading to military conflicts among them. But a Kyrgyz ecologist argues that in fact both these countries and the international community should make access to water the basis for closer cooperation among them.
That is because, Urustem Kabylbekov, a Kyrgyz ecologist, argues, any military conflict could lead to the bleeding into the water supply of uranium and other minerals that would render the region uninhabitable for 500 years and thus have negative consequences for the entire world (
And consequently, even if some Central Asian leaders are not prepared to cooperate on water issues on their own, the international community must step in to insist on cooperation lest ecological, demographic and socio-political problems arise that no one inside the region or beyond will be able to cope with.
Kabylbekov, who heads the Ecological Foundation for the Preservation of Glaciers in Bishkek, argues that cooperation among the countries must focus on the preservation of glaciers and forests as the first line of defense against desertification and on the avoidance of any moves that could further contaminate sources of drinking water.
Glaciers, he points out, are the most important source of pure water in the region, but unfortunately, they are rapidly declining in number and size. Over the last 60 years, the number of glaciers in Kyrgyzstan has fallen by 14 percent, sometimes because of climatic change, including global warming, but sometimes because of human agency.
In 1962, for example, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev helped to accelerate the decline in glaciers there by ordering officials to spread coal dust on them. That led to more rapid heat absorption and more rapid melting and consequently to a greater run-off of water to crops and people downstream.
Moreover, the Kyrgyz activist continues, it is critical that the countries of the region promote reforestation rather than the cutting down of ever more trees. Each hectare of forest holds up to 50 tons of dust, thus limiting the contamination of the air and water supplies and harming the health of the people across the region.
But equally important, he suggests, is to force all the governments of the region to reverse the contamination of the water supply. Two years ago, Kabylbekov notes, “scholars showed that as a result of the use of fertilizer and pesticides, all the ground water [in the region] has been converted into poisonous flows.”
And above all, Kabylbekov says, the countries must not be allowed to fight over water or over anything else: “We are not the Balkans. If military actions begin in Central Asia, humanity will lose these lands. In the Fergana valley, there are numerous uranium tales left over from Soviet time. … If God forbid they were disturbed, all of them would go into the Syrdarya.”
That would be “a tragedy for 500 years. And therefore, the Kyrgyz specialist argues, “we must have a special status,” on that will “prohibit all military actions in Central Asia.”
But is that probable or even possible? Most analysts point to growing conflicts over water because two countries in the region, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, have surpluses of water while two others, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan, are almost completely dependent on flows from the other two. Kazakhstan is in an intermediate position.
And the difficulties in pushing these countries toward cooperation are in fact highlighted by the very confidence-building measure Kabylbekov suggests. Arguing that “it is necessary to raise the prestige of water,” he calls for an international competition to give the 14 still nameless glaciers in his country the names of “outstanding people of the planet.”
In the absence of political will both inside the region and more generally, however, it seems unlikely that naming one of the glaciers after Gandhi or another after Mohammed is going to be enough to prevent the very scramble for water resources in Central Asia that the Kyrgyz glaciologist quite reasonably argues will lead to disaster.

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