Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan border conflict: another water dispute in Central Asia

[Illustration by Matilde Morri]


On 28 April clashes broke out on the border between Tajikistan’s Sughd province and Kyrgyzstan’s southern Batken province.

The reason for the four-day conflict is an old water dispute between the two countries over the Golovnoi water intake facility, which splits a river – known as Ak-Suu by the Kyrgyz and Isfara by the Tajiks – into two.  The reason for the conflict was the installation of surveillance cameras near the border by the Tajik forces. At least 55 people were killed.  On the Kyrgyz side, 36 died and 183 were wounded, on the Tajik side 19 died and 88 were injured. More than 33,000 people had been evacuated from the Batken province.

On 29 April, the two parties agreed to a ceasefire, which was broken by the Tajiks twice in the same night. On 1 May, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have agreed to a complete ceasefire and the withdrawal of armed forces from the border.

The bone of contention

The water problems in Central Asia arose back in the Soviet Union period.  The mismanagement of the system, the ineffective agricultural policy and infrastructures, and the use of intensive crops led to the drying up of the Aral Sea – once the fourth-largest inland sea – over the last four decades.

The competition between water use for hydropower and irrigation contributes to serious consequences for the economy of riparian states, which also give rise to tensions. Every year, disputes arise between the three downstream countries – Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, that need more water for their agricultural sector and in particular to grow cotton, which is an intensive water-use crop, – and the upstream countries – Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, that want to use more water for power generation and farmland.

Population growth, widespread environmental degradation, rising consumption of resources, and climate change have increased the demand for limited water resources. The melting of the glaciers and a significant decrease in runoffs in July and August are making it difficult for crops to obtain their irrigation requirements in the most critical season of water demand. All these factors have led to a decrease in the water volume of the two main rivers of the region, the Syr Darya and the Amu Darya.

The challenges to face are many and complicated, yet since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the five Central Asian countries have failed to discuss the necessity to increase cooperation and develop water resources management strategies. In fact, the two countries tell slightly different stories about Golovnoi, the site of the clashes. Both parties claim the ownership: Almazbek Sokeyev, the director of the Water Resources and Land Improvement Department of the water intake facility, said that the facility on the Ak-Suu River has since Soviet times belonged to the Kyrgyz Republic, and it is administered by the region that pays for its maintenance.

On the other hand, Rustam Shomirsaidov, head of Water and Land Resources Management in Tajikistan’s Isfara district, said that Golovnoi has not undergone any repair for the past 12 years. Nevertheless, Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov on May 7 ordered that the water distribution point be overhauled.

What’s next?

On 2 May, the chairman of the Kyrgyz National Committee for National Security, Kamchybek Tashiyev, and his Tajik counterparty Saymumin Yatimov signed an agreement regarding border demarcation. Neighbouring Uzbekistan and Russia, and Turkey and Iran have offered to mediate the conflict. However, the ceasefire was reached without external intervention.

Even if for now the tensions have been subsided, new ones are likely to emerge soon, as long as people will feel threatened by the limited access to water. There is an urgent need for well-resourced and climate-responsive programs to ensure that all citizens have access to safe and affordable water when faced with the impacts of the climate crisis. International Organizations should have a role in helping the Central Asian countries to collaborate and find common solutions.

There is the need to have institutional reforms, policy-related initiatives, and to create a framework based on collaboration and trust. Currently, the two countries involved in the dispute find themselves in a vicious cycle in which solutions based on self-sufficiency lead to diminished levels of trust and fewer opportunities to advance cooperation. For this reason, countries in the region should take all steps needed to improve cooperation and reach confidence.

In order to address the broad range of issues, various sectoral and cross-sectoral efforts, as well as harmonization and better overall coordination are needed. Greater involvement from the energy sector within the basin-wide frameworks of institutional cooperation would improve such opportunities.

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