Background

The Amu Darya and Syr Darya Rivers are the lifeline of Central Asia’s water supply. These rivers have their source in the Tien Shan and Pamir mountains and flow though the central Asian republics to the remains of the Aral Sea. Water in the summer comes from glacier and snow melting in the high mountain ranges. The steppe climate downstream is arid and agriculture is heavily dependent on water from these rivers, which uses inefficient open channel irrigation developed during the soviet era.

Water sharing has been a source of tension between the central Asian states since the breakup of the Soviet Union. Previously the two upstream republics (Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan) released water to the downstream countries in the summer for irrigation and hydropower production. In return, the downstream republics (Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan) provided coal and gas to the upstream stream countries to generate electricity in the winter. This trans-boundary water arrangement came to an end with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 and disputes there were normally resolved by Moscow were left to the newly formed states to settle. This has proved to be a difficult transition.    

One core tension has been caused by the proposed construction of the Rogun Dam hydro power plant in Tajikistan, which has been controversial because of its potential impact on Uzbekistan‘s cotton industry downstream. Adding the uncertainty of climate change to this backdrop may exacerbate the tensions over water.  Glaciers in the Tien Shan have already lost approximately one third of their mass in the past 50 years. Climate models predict an increase in temperatures ranging from +1.6 to +7.8 °C by the end of this Century which will have substantial impact on Central Asia’s water supply. Ultimately the peace and political stability of Central Asia may depend on maintaining adequate water supply through effective trans-boundary governance.  This project aims to address how climate change will impact scarce water resources within a risk based framework that will lead to better informed governance decisions.  

Image of Tien Shan mountains by Chen Zhao – originally posted to Flickr as 天山山脉西段航拍, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8723906