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Uzbekistan’s Water Sector: Environmental and Managerial Issues

How does water shortage affect Uzbekistan’s economic and political life? How effective are the measures undertaken by the government and international organizations? Will the Central Asian countries be able to collectively address water problems?

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Uzbekistan was placed 25th out of 164 in the world’s most water-stressed countries ranking published by the World Resources Institute[1]. The water shortage is a very pressing issue for Uzbekistan, given that the scarcity in certain regions, especially Karakalpakstan, might cause a social and environmental crisis. The water is scarce not only for agricultural purposes but also for domestic use. Hence, it is reasonable for us to raise the following questions. How does water shortage affect Uzbekistan’s economic and political life? How effective are the measures undertaken by the government and international organizations? Will the Central Asian countries be able to collectively address water problems?

Water scarcity and the Aral Sea

Uzbekistan’s hydropower resources make up only 4.92% of the entire country territory; the total water resources amount to 50-60 km 3 per year, of which only 12.2 km 3 is formed inside the republic, whereas the rest of the water comes from elsewhere – from the Tien Shan and Pamir-Altai mountains, from snowmelt and glaciers melting in summer[2]. Most of the water resources go to irrigate cotton fields.

By 2030, the population of the republic is forecast to increase to almost 40 million people, causing a reduction in available water resources by 7-8 km3. In such circumstances, the current water shortage will surge by 2030 from 13-14% to 44–46%, impairing the development of both agriculture and industries.

According to the World Bank, freshwater losses in Uzbekistan in 2018 amounted to 469 million cubic meters or 32% of the total volume of drinking water produced. Large-scale water losses come amidst unfavorable forecasts for the future water supply in Central Asia, particularly Uzbekistan.  According to World Bank forecasts, by 2050, streamflow decline might amount to 2-5% in the Syr Darya river basin, and 10-15% in the Amu Darya river basin, thus resulting in an increased water shortage. In jeopardy is not only agriculture but hydropower as well since the productivity of hydropower plants by 2050 in parts of the region may decline to 20%[3].

The problem of the Aral Sea concerns not only Uzbekistan but also neighboring countries. 135-145 million tons of salt are dumped into the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya annually, making it about 17-20 tons for 1 ha of irrigated land per year. If by 1960 the average annual river flow into the Aral Sea was about 55 km 3 or 45-50%, then by 1990 the inflow had decreased to 6-12 km3 was approaching zero in dry years. Currently, sea level is declining at a rate of about 0.5 m per year, reaching 37.0 m; the sea surface area has been reduced to 32,000 km2; salinity increased to 40 or more g / l and is still growing[4].

The problem of the Aral Sea took a political aspect in the late 1980s: with the efforts of the Central Asian leadership, there was an International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea (IFAS) established, currently the only interstate coordinating mechanism in Central Asia. Experience had shown that only the joint efforts of all Central Asian states can prevent the further drying of the Aral Sea. However, the cooperation does not go beyond signing general declarations and memoranda.

There were many initiatives in the 1990s, but all remained on paper. For example, on March 26, 1993, the regional leaders signed an agreement in the town of Kyzyl-Orda on collectively addressing the problem of the Aral Sea and the Aral Sea region. Paragraph 3 of article 1 read: guaranteed water supply to the Aral Sea in volumes necessary to maintain a reduced but stable water area at an environmentally acceptable level and thus preserve the sea as a natural site[5]. Contributing factors in the failure to address the Aral Sea issue is its location mainly on the territory of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan as an “inland sea” of these republics. The remaining Central Asian states are concerned with the development of their hydropower and extensive agriculture. In October 2019, Uzbekistan invited the world community to declare the Aral Sea a zone of environmental innovations and technologies. This matter to be considered at the UN General Assembly in September 2020. Kazakhstan seeks to preserve biodiversity and the lake in the north of the Aral Sea. Over the past 30 years, international organizations have written numerous policy briefs and proposals of a review and recommendatory nature[6]. UNDP programs on environmental issues in the Aral Sea region are also under implementation[7].

The fundamental solution to the Aral Sea problem lays in creating a legal framework for determining the status of the former Aral Sea in Central Asia, i.e. when the Aral becomes a subject for international relations. This can be done with the Central Asian states signing an international treaty brokered by the EU, the USA and the Russian Federation. We must remember that this is possible only if the Central Asian republics cooperate closely in tackling the energy and environmental issues in the region.

Water management

The total irrigable area in Uzbekistan is 4.3 million hectares, and agriculture is the largest consumer of water resources accounting for an average of 90-91% of the water used. The Ministry of Water is a chief water manager. This is a state body that implements a unified policy on water management in the country. Currently, responsibility for water resources is shared by several state ministries and departments, resulting in inefficient use of the resources.

From Soviet times, Uzbekistan trained personnel for water management in the Tashkent Institute of Irrigation and Agricultural Mechanization Engineers (TIIAME). Despite many personnel graduated, any advancements in the industry take long. The local universities also attempt to establish partnerships with universities in Germany and the Netherlands. Joint training programs have opened for students. Despite the positive changes, a new generation of irrigation engineers and managers is slow in coming. Outdated Soviet-style educational programs and a lack of qualified teaching staff hinder the graduation of qualified personnel.

The scientific potential of water management is represented by scientific and higher profile education centers like TIIAME, Research Institute of Irrigation and Water Problems, State-owned Gidroingeo, National University of Uzbekistan, Tashkent State Technical University, Tashkent State Agrarian University, UzGIP, Research Institute of Hydrometeorology. The integration into the “higher education-science-production” system remains inadequate. The teaching and laboratory facilities of educational institutions became physically and conceptually obsolete and require modernization. Innovative and interactive learning tools are underutilized. The average monthly wage ($ 150) water management organizations’ staff remains low relative to the average monthly wage ($ 240) in the country. The low salary level decreases in the social status and attractiveness of a water worker profession, which prevents retaining highly professional specialists. Young people with good potential aspire to enter other prestigious fields, whereas good specialists leave for other industries. The lack of a scientific coordination system in the field of research, experimental and design work, the lack of funding for research and innovation, and the fragmentation of such specialized institutions impede the effective implementation of targeted research results and innovative activities in the water sector[8].

The country’s leadership is keenly aware of the necessity to change the training policy. There are management and ecology departments at the National University of Uzbekistan and the Tashkent Institute of Irrigation. Graduates with majors in management usually end up working as accountants, while a small proportion of graduates with majors in ecology work in Sanpotrebnadzor (Service for Surveillance on Consumer Rights Protection and Human Wellbeing). There is no practice of advanced undergraduate students training in foreign countries. European water management standards are still far from fulfillment.

Another reason for the lag is the slow agricultural mechanization. The villages lack equipment (from tractors to combine harvesters). Low-qualified irrigation engineers contribute to the inefficient use of water. The Soviet irrigation methods are still widely used, while the experience of leading countries in this field is being neglected.

The efforts of the State and international organizations

The Uzbek government has developed a concept for the integrated development of Uzbekistan until 2030[9]. According to the document, the following actions are planned for the medium term (2019-2025) in the water sector:

– phased introduction of market mechanisms in water use, as well as principles of public-private partnership in the operation of water facilities in the Republic of Uzbekistan;

– Development of irrigation systems through the construction and reconstruction of canals, irrigation channel network, hydraulic structures, delivery pipelines.

The government also plans to supply 100% of the population with high-quality drinking water by 2030.

Within the framework of the “Save the Aral Sea” government program, designed for 2019–2021[10], an extensive saksaul planting is carried out in the territory of the former Aral Sea[11]. The so-called My Garden in the Aral Sea agricultural and ecotourism project, aimed at mitigating the consequences of shrinking Aral Sea and increasing the number of tourists, is to be implemented in 2020. The Muinak and Samanbai experimental sites have been established by the International Innovation Center; the gene pool of salt and drought-resistant desert and ornamental plants has also been formed, and 13 plant species are being tested in it[12].

Large international organizations do not stand aside. For example, the EBRD in 2019 made a recording investment in 13 private and public sector projects in the amount of US $ 576 million (517 million euros), the largest investment in the history of the Bank’s work in the country. The reconstruction projects of the sewerage system in the Kashkadarya region (53.4 million euros) and the sewerage system in Khorezm (80.2 million euros)[13].

The regional dimension of water issues

The Central Asian countries are interdependent on water issues (and not just them). The countries, unfortunately, do not fully and efficiently use water resources to tackle environmental and economic problems. Water problems in the region arise, experts believe, because each country puts its national interests for economic development first. The water management problem is associated not only with water itself but also with energy needs and agriculture[14].

The major threats for guaranteed water access are:

  • unilateral and inconsistent water management of transboundary rivers in the upper-stream countries;
  • commercialization of water and perception of water as a commodity in certain upper-stream countries of the region;
  • a keenness of the upper-stream countries to build new large reservoirs of hydroelectric power stations on the main transboundary tributaries of the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya.

With Mirziyoyev’s rise to power, Uzbekistan has softened its position and is engaged in a dialogue on water and hydropower issues. Uzbekistan is interested in developing not only its hydropower but also investing in neighboring countries. For instance, in January 2020, Tashkent and Dushanbe began negotiations on the joint construction of two hydropower plants in Tajikistan for $ 552 million. The constructed hydroelectric power stations will generate up to 1.4 billion kWh of energy “exclusively for the needs of Uzbekistan”[15]. Unfortunately, a common water use code per international standards is yet to be developed in Central Asia. The conflict potential in the water sector seems to be persistent and only worsens over time. The main constraint for the conflict is the lack of a single agreement between the Central Asian states on the rational use of transboundary rivers, i.e. construction of hydroelectric power stations, reservoirs for the development of individual economies. Until the Central Asian republics won’t feel like a single ecological, economic, social, and political organism, the conflict potential will persist not only in the water but also in other areas.

What do we do now?

Despite all the efforts of the government and international organizations, Uzbekistan’s water problems remain acute. I propose the following recommendations to address the water problems:

  • establish a common code for Central Asia on water use, taking into account the interests of individual countries and the future of the region;
  • increase the number of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working on water issues in the region;
  • enhance the media performance, i.e. we need water journalism for adequate water issues coverage;
  • create a Central Asian Institute for a joint study of the region’s water problems;
  • create a mobile expert group (humanitarians, engineers, environmentalists, sociologists, psychologists) who would on an ongoing basis write memoranda to the Central Asian governments on water issues;
  • create film production and attract pop stars of the region to tackle the environmental problems in Central Asia.

Only a comprehensive approach to addressing water problems will yield meaningful results. Countries in the region, including Uzbekistan, I believe, are interdependent on the water problem. Therefore, an issue requires a joint response, i.e. countries need to consult with each other and coordinate their actions to address water issues in Central Asia.

The opinions expressed in the material do not reflect the position of the editorial board or donor.

[1] https://www.gazeta.uz/ru/2019/08/08/water-stress/

[2] Gusev L. Water-energy problems of Central Asia and ways to address them // Bulletin of MGIMO University. 2013.6 (33). p. 36.

[3] Economic Review. No. 10 (238). 2019. p. 21.

[4] Abdurakhmanova I., Vafoev R. The use of land and water resources in Uzbekistan (irrigated agriculture) // Bulletin of the Caspian Sea. Number 4. November 2017.

[5] http://icwc-aral.uz/statute13_ru.htm

[6] https://www.osce.org/ru/uzbekistan/75577?download=true

[7] https://nuz.uz/fotoreportazh/34743-aralskoe-more-a-sdelany-li-vyvody.html

[8] http://www.water.gov.uz/ru/posts/1545735855/396

[9] https://regulation.gov.uz/ru/document/8839

[10] http://eco.uz/ru/novosti/10891-obrashchenie-ekologicheskoj-partii-uzbekistana-k-shirokoj-obshchestvennosti-o-provendenii-ekonedeli-pomoshch-aral

[11] http://beruni.uz/ru/component/k2/item/334-vse-lideri-molodyoji-uzbekistana-%E2%80%93-k-spaseniyu-arala.html

[12] https://t.me/pravoinf/1643

[13] http://cawater-info.net/information-exchange/e-bulletin/13-17-01-2020.pdf

[14] Zakharova K. Water-energy issues in Central Asia today // Concerns of the post-Soviet space. 2018.5 (3). p. 302.

[15] https://www.gazeta.uz/ru/2020/01/28/energy/

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