Central Asia’s water crisis: a human security perspective [explainer clip]

Water is arguably the world’s most precious resource. However, it has also become a source of growing concern, affecting some regions more severely than others. In Central Asia, water scarcity has reached alarming levels, affecting the well-being and livelihoods of millions, and  jeopardizing stability in the region. 

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, five independent countries emerged in Central Asia as sovereign nations. Yet, the challenges they face extend beyond individual borders. The implications of the water crisis affect the entire region and raise concerns about the potential for conflicts between the neighboring countries. 

The primary water sources of Central Asia are the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers, mostly fed by snow and glacier melt from the mountain ranges. The region also benefits from various mountain lakes, such as Lake Balkhash in Kazakhstan and Lake Issyk-Kul in Kyrgyzstan. These water sources play a vital role in providing water for irrigation, drinking, and hydroelectric power generation. However, the current water supply falls short of meeting the increasing demands of Central Asia’s growing population.

What are the reasons for water scarcity in the region? One of the primary causes is the lasting legacy of the Soviet Union [3]. Until the USSR’s collapse in 1991, water resources in the entire region were centrally managed in Moscow. Administrative boundaries between the Soviet republics were often disregarded when building water and energy infrastructure. After the collapse of the USSR, the Central Asian republics found themselves engaged in a prolonged conflict, as former domestic boundaries became international boundaries [7]. 

The Soviet rule also brought unsustainable practices of water management that damage ecosystems to this day. The Soviet authorities intensively built water and energy infrastructure, primarily to support the cotton industry. These unsustainable practices had far-reaching consequences, with the shrinking Aral Sea being the main example. Once the world’s fourth-largest lake, its surface area has shrunk by approximately 90% due to excessive irrigation, leaving behind a desolate and dry landscape that has had devastating effects on the local environment, communities and their livelihoods. 

Water management in Central Asia continues to suffer from inefficiency, with inadequate maintenance and degraded water infrastructure. Irrigation practices in the region are highly wasteful, with only around 40% of water effectively used, while the remaining 60% is lost [1]. Conventional agriculture methods commonly employed in Central Asia often overlook the development of the soil’s ability to effectively hold water. This causes water runoff and the loss of essential nutrients. It is only through the use of permaculture and regenerative agriculture practices that these otherwise dry landscapes can effectively retain more water.

Climate change further exacerbates the situation. Central Asia is highly vulnerable to its effects, and the region is projected to experience higher temperature increases than the global average [4]. This rise in temperatures accelerates glacier melting, alters rainfall patterns, and intensifies extreme weather events like droughts and floods, impacting water availability. 

Central Asia is also experiencing a faster population growth rate compared to the global average. Between 1990 and 2019, the total population of Central Asia has grown over 46% [6]. This demographic trend puts additional pressure on limited water resources. 

The consequences of water scarcity in Central Asia are multifaceted and deeply affect human security. One major factor is water insecurity, with nearly one-third of the population lacking access to safe drinking water [8]. This disproportionately affects women and girls, who often bear the burden of water collection, having to travel long distances to access limited sources. The lack of clean water leads to widespread health problems, including water-borne diseases. Water scarcity also results in food insecurity, since the region heavily depends on agriculture. With limited water available for irrigation, agricultural productivity has decreased, making it difficult to meet the demand for food. This not only affects food availability but also leads to economic losses and decreased employment opportunities. Additionally, the environment is affected, as water scarcity disrupts ecosystems, leading to habitat degradation, loss of biodiversity and soil deterioration.

Moreover, water scarcity in Central Asia has been linked to social unrest and conflicts. In the Ferghana Valley region, shared by Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, water has triggered numerous violent border disputes that escalate during the irrigation season. Scholars and international organizations argue that conflicts over water resources in Central Asia are likely to escalate throughout the region [5]. A recent incident that highlights these tensions occurred in 2022 when Kyrgyz authorities decided to allocate the Kampirabad reservoir to Uzbekistan. This decision led to protests involving activists in Kyrgyzstan, which resulted in the arrest of the protesters.

Measures to address water scarcity have been taken at the state level, including the signing of the Almaty Agreement in 1992, the establishment of the Interstate Commission for Water Coordination (ICWC) to regulate water quotas, and the creation of the International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea. However, these efforts have not proven sufficient in addressing the crisis.

Civil society organizations play an important role in complementing state-level measures and driving grassroots initiatives to address water scarcity. 

One example is the Institute for Sustainable Development Strategy (ISDS), operating in Kyrgyzstan. ISDS plays an important role in sustainable water management by working on biodiversity preservation and the restoration of water ecosystems. They empower local communities to make sustainable use of natural resources and utilize various media channels [2] to raise awareness about water security and biodiversity.

El-Too, another civil society organization based in Kyrgyzstan, actively addresses water issues by promoting innovative methods and techniques that foster sustainable water management, like drip irrigation systems. These systems significantly reduce water usage compared to traditional methods. By emphasizing the importance of water-saving techniques, El-Too optimizes water usage in agriculture. They also support local officials in integrating sustainable practices into water and land use regulations.

Local civil society organizations engage in on-the-ground projects, collaborate closely with communities, and advocate for policy changes to improve water availability. Their diverse and creative approaches showcase the potential for effective action.

Water scarcity is an urgent issue in Central Asia that requires immediate attention and proactive measures. Join us in advocating for water security and supporting local civil society organizations working to address this issue! 

Disclaimer. This clip has been granted funding from the FBA’s support to civil society for peace and security. FBA is the Swedish agency for peace, development and security and yearly grants funds to Swedish civil society organizations with the aim to increase knowledge and commitment as well as to promote dialogue and debate on international peace-promoting activities, women, peace and security, disarmament and non-proliferation and youth, peace and security. Central Asia Solidarity Groups is responsible for the content. 

Written by: Tatiana Stebneva and Jamshid Aramov
Animated by:  Urmat Ulanov

List of literature used:

  1. Abdullaev, Iskandar, and Shakhboz Akhmedov. “Water Infrastructure in Central Asia: Promoting Sustainable Financing and Private Capital Participation.” Project Report. Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation Institute, January 2023.
  2. Climate Action Network. “Climate Solutions in Kyrgyzstan — #WorldWeWant.”, 2023. Retrieved from: https://caneecca.org/eng/climate-solutions-song-kol/
  3. International Crisis Group. “Water Pressures in Central Asia.” Europe and Central Asia Report no. 233 (2014). Retrieved from: https://www.refworld.org/docid/5412a6444.html
  4. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Sixth Assessment Report. 2021.
  5. Libert, Bo, and Annukka Lipponen. “Challenges and Opportunities for Transboundary Water Cooperation in Central Asia: Findings from UNECE’s Regional Assessment and Project Work.” International Journal of Water Resources Development 28, no. 3 (2012): 565-576.
  6. Makhanov, Kanat. “UN Population Prospects: Case of Central Asia.” Eurasian Research Institute, 2019. Retrieved from: https://www.eurasian-research.org/publication/un-population-prospects-case-of-central-asia/ 
  7. Suleimenova, Zulfiya. “Water Security in Central Asia and Southern Caucasus.” Asia-Pacific Sustainable Development Journal 27, no. 1 (2021).
  8. Young, William. “Working towards water security: A shared mission to support Central Asia’s sustainable growth.” The World Bank Blogs, 2020. Retrieved from: https://blogs.worldbank.org/water/working-towards-water-security-shared-mission-support-central-asias-sustainable-growth