Desertification, overgrazing and salinization are serious problems in some parts of Central Asia. Too many animals on too little land has resulted in desertification and soil erosion.

Over-irrigation has encrusted the land with silt and salt. Inefficient irrigation, leakage from canals and salinization in the cotton-growing regions have produced acres of salt marshes. The make the land productive against. the fields have to be flooded four times to clear away the salt.

The extensive use of pesticides, fertilizers and defoliates has polluted the land and contaminated drinking water supplies and has been blamed for deaths and disease. Defoliates used to make cotton harvesting easier have been blamed for hundreds of deaths.

Scientists studying ancient Siberia pine trees in central Mongolia that date back nearly 2,000 years made some disturbing discoveries in relation to global warming. Since the mid-20th Century, the region has warmed rapidly and the drought years recently have been more extreme than at any time in the tree-ring record, said Neil Pederson, a tree-ring scientist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, who led the study. [Source: Steve Connor, The Independent, March 20, 2014]

According to one study, the countries in Central Asia and Sub-Sahara are expected to be hurt the most by global warming. Temperatures in these places could rise as much a 5 degrees C. Regional experts assert that salt and dust storms from the Aral Sea have raised the level of particulate matter in the earth's atmosphere by more than 5 percent, seriously affecting global climate change. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

Central Asia has suffers locust plagues. A huge plague destroyed 330,000 hectares in Uzbekistan in 1999. Equally devastating swarms have occurred in Kazakhstan.

Water Issues in Central Asia

Water presents one the greatest challenges for Central Asia. As the population grows there is a need to create more jobs and grow more food, which generally requires more water, but water sources are limited and if anything water use needs to be reduced to save the Aral Sea.

The current way water is used in Central Asia dates back to the Soviet era when planners developed schemes that utilized water produced by rivers flowing out snowcapped mountains to make the desert bloom. In return for supplying the water the mountainous areas were given fuel to heat home sin the winter.

Maria Golovnina of Reuters wrote: There is “a growing sense of alarm throughout Central Asia where stability depends on the region's scarcest and most precious commodity: water. From tiny irrigation canals...to the powerful Soviet-era hydroelectric plants, water is the source of misery and celebration in a poor region already overflowing with political and ethnic tension. Central Asia is one of the world's driest places where, thanks to 70 years of Soviet planning, thirsty crops such as cotton and grain remain the main livelihood for most of the 58 million people. [Source: Maria Golovnina, Reuters, June 12, 2008 ***]

“In Soviet days, water management was unified under Moscow's control, which linked Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, whose rivers and glaciers contain more than 90 percent of Central Asian water, with the arid plains of Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. The system fell apart when Soviet rule collapsed. With national rivalries on the rise, the new states have been unable to agree on how to share their water effectively.” ***

Wasting Water in Central Asia

Much of the water used for drinking, bathing, industry and agriculture comes from Amu Darya and Syr Darya—the two largest rivers in Central Asia. Water management is very poor. Tashkent consumes far more water than it actually needs and much of the irrigation water used in Central Asia evaporates before it reaches plants it is supposed to water.

What is worse is that less money is being spent now on maintaining water infrastructure than was spent in the Soviet era. In the early 2000s, Uzbekistan spent $60 per hectare maintaining its waterworks. Tajikistan spent $10 per hectare. By contrast the Soviets used spend $150 per hectare. Some parts of the irrigation systems are in such disrepair they waste more water than they deliver.

Some argue that as much as 95 percent of water used by humans in Central Asia is wasted. To improve the situation many say that the first step that needs to be taken is to increase the price that farmers and consumers pay for water. Going hand and hand with this is privatizing land and raising the abysmally low prices that farmers are paid for cotton.

Maria Golovnina of Reuters wrote: Efficient water management requires advanced engineering expertise in water saving and resource planning in a region where most water simply vanishes into the ground if the irrigation timing is incorrect, experts say. "If you look at quantity, yes, you have a lot of it, but it is not a question of quantity but quality and timing," said the World Bank's Bosch. "That's the problem in Central Asia." [Source: Maria Golovnina, Reuters, June 12, 2008]

Water Disputes in Central Asia

All five Central Asian countries depend on the Amu Darya and Syr Darya Rivers for drinking water and irrigation and all five countries are embroiled in disputes over the Aral Sea and the Amu and Syr Rivers. The countries rely on a Soviet-era plan of water allocation and have been unable to agree on ways to change it. Some countries accuse the others of hoarding water, wasting it, or using more than their fair share.

There are bitter disputes over rivers in the Aral Sea Basin that irrigate fields and drive power plants. The source of the water are in Kyrzgzstan and Tajikistan while irrigation projects that consume most of the water are in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are critically short of water and rely on water supplies that originate in Kyrgyzstan . Uzbekistan constantly accuses Kyrgyzstan of hoarding water. Turkmenistan accuses Uzbekistan of using more than their fair share of water.

Kyrgyzstan says it needs water to produce electricity and accuses Uzbekistan of not supplying it with oil or gas which leaves it no choice of using water to generate electricity. Kyrgyzstan wants to discharge water in the winter when it needs electricity the most. Downstream countries want water in spring and summer for irrigation and agriculture

Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan share the downstream water of Amu Damyr. Turkmenistan claims 50 percent of the water and has gone ahead with projects with that assumption but the river also flows through dry parts of Tajikistan and Afghanistan, which currently don’t take much water but no doubt will want a larger share as they develop.

Maria Golovnina of Reuters wrote: Disputes over cross-border water use have simmered for years in this sprawling mass of land...Afghanistan, linked to Central Asia by the Amu Daria river, is adding to the tension by claiming its own share of the water. Water shortages are causing concern the world over, because of rising demand, climate change and swelling populations. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has said water scarcity is a "potent fuel for wars and conflict". Analysts say this year's severe weather fluctuations in Central Asia -- from a record cold winter to devastating spring floods and now drought -- are causing extra friction. "Water is very political. It's very sensitive. It can be a pretext for disputes or conflicts," said Christophe Bosch, a Central Asia water expert at the World Bank. "It is one of the major irritants between countries in Central Asia." [Source: Maria Golovnina, Reuters, June 12, 2008 ***]

“Uzbekistan, Central Asia's most populous nation and a big gas producer, is angry that poor Tajikistan has the leverage to influence water levels in its cotton plains -- a powerful political tool. Farmers in Kazakhstan, for their part, accuse Uzbekistan of dumping fertiliser in its rivers. Tajik officials complain that foreign investment in its hydroelectric sector has stalled because of fears of conflict with Uzbekistan.” ***

See Aral Sea

See Water, Turkmenistan

Solving Central Asia’s Water Problems

Independence for the nations of Central Asia brought about an end to central planning that kept everyone following rules designed for the common good. The water crisis in the region came to head in the 1990s when Kyrgyzstan began experiencing power blackout and began threatening to open its sluices in the winter to supply electricity rather then kept them closed until spring and summer when Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan needed the water for irrigation. To prevent a major conflict—even a war—an agreement was signed by the five Central Asian nation to keep the Soviet era agreement in place.

Kyrgyzstan however has ended up on the short end of the stick as Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan no longer have to supply Kyrgyzstan with cheap fuel; they prefer to sell it on the world market for big money. The problem is particularly acute in dry years when less water is sent to the dry states and less fuel is returned. By one estimate Kyrgyzstan loses a $100 million a year in the agreement. Not only is that a lot of money. Dams and water are one of the few resources that Kyrgyzstan has and it is unable to exploit them.

Analysts say that there is enough water, at least until the 2025. The problem is,” one Western diplomat told the Times of London, “they just don’t trust each other.” Maria Golovnina of Reuters wrote: A Chinese company pulled out of a project to build a power station on a Tajik river last year because of what Tajik industry sources said was China's reluctance to get involved in Central Asian bickering. Observers agree that only cooperation between the five "stans" of Central Asia can provide sustainable water use. "Countries should be able to do this as independent entities," said another Western diplomat, who also preferred not to be identified. "They're not children. They are grown-up members of the international community."[Source: Maria Golovnina, Reuters, June 12, 2008]

Harassment of Environmental Activists in Central Asia

Antoine Blua of Radio Free Europe wrote: “Instances of persecution against environmentalists and rights activists are common in Central Asia, especially when the methods that are being used in economically lucrative extraction projects are being questioned.” There is a general “lack of tolerance for independent activism. [Source: Antoine Blua, Radio Free Europe, November 6, 2009 +++]

"Throughout Central Asia, environmentalists and [civil society] activists as a whole face personal persecution," Michelle Kinman, deputy director of the Virginia-based nongovernmental organization Crude Accountability, which focuses on environmental justice, told Radio Free Europe. "They face threats to their own livelihood, their employments, if they continue with their activism. They are often threatened indirectly as their relatives and friends may face similar persecution." +++

But she says some governments are concerned when the citizenry is getting involved in environmental issues with the intention to make their voices heard. "Some governments do see citizens taking an interest in their own well-being and participating in environmental decision-making as a threat to the stability of their countries," Kinman says. "However, I would argue that in order to attain a stable population, you want to have you citizenry actively engaged in the decision making process that affect their livelihoods." +++

Kinman says environmental groups, including NGOs, community groups, or neighborhood committees, play an important role in developing more sustainable societies in promoting the concepts of civil society. Central Asia's environmental groups are facing many challenges, including financing, membership recruitment, strategic planning, cooperation among themselves, and relationship with government authorities. A number of them are nonetheless making great efforts -- sometimes with success -- to make positive changes. +++

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated April 2016

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