Cotton, electricity and the Aral Sea: The troubled waters of Central Asia

Fed by the melting glaciers of the Tian Shan and Pamir Mountain ranges on Kyrgyzstan’s and Tajikistan’s borders with China, the Amur Darya and Syr Daria rivers meander westward for over 2,000 kilometres through Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan to what remains of the Aral Sea. Their waters bind the five states of Central Asia together in a frequently uneasy interdependence, with the downstream demands of the Kazakh, Uzbek and Turkmen agricultural sectors at constant odds with their upstream neighbours’ ambitions to boost their hydroelectric power production.
Before the Soviet era, the combined volumes of the two rivers flowing into the Aral Sea equaled those of the Nile, but central economic planning put paid to that as Moscow went all out to increase Uzbek cotton production. The amount of water diverted from the Amur Darya and Syr Daria for irrigation purposes doubled between 1960 and 2000, with disastrous consequences for the Aral Sea and its surrounding eco systems. Over the past four decades, the water levels of what was once the fourth largest lake in the world have dropped by 23 metres.
The problem did not disappear with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Cotton remains Uzbekistan’s main cash crop to this day, with raw cotton and non-retail pure cotton yarns accounting for around 20% of all exports making it the world’s fifth largest cotton exporters. Tashkent’s dependence on its “white gold” is not going to go away any time soon.
Chronically short of their own hydrocarbon reserves, both Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan see the development of their hydroelectric power industries as a means of simultaneously meeting their domestic power requirements and of generating additional income through exports to South Asia. Both are urgently needed. As a result, water discharges for power generation are already taking precedence over the agricultural demands of their downstream neighbours.
On the upside – at least from their point of view – neither Tajikistan nor Kyrgyzstan are currently producing hydroelectric power at anything like their full capacity. Recent estimates suggest that Tajikistan has the potential to exponentially increase its annual hydropower capacity from 17.09bn kWh in 2013 to 300bn kWh a year, and Kyrgyzstan from 14.9bn kWh in 2011 to 142bn kWh.

Naryn River, site of proposed Kambar-Ata Dam

If Tajikistan is going to get anywhere near to achieving this dream, then a good starting point would be to find the $6bn or so that it needs to complete the immense 13bn kWh Rogun dam across the Amu Darya Vakhsh River subsidiary. With the World Bank remaining non-committal on the question of funding, there has been speculation that Russia could finance the project as a means of luring Tajikistan into the Eurasian Economic Union; Moscow has already sunk $2bn into Kyrgyzstan’s Kambar-Ata Dam, one of six planned across the Naryn subsidiary of the Syr Daria. As for the AIIB, exactly how it deals with project that pitches two of its founder members against each other remains to be seen. It may be the first such dilemma faces, and it is very unlikely to be the last.
The fact remains, however, that if Central Asia is going to live up to Beijing’s expectations of a thriving economic zone, then something will have to be done about its power grid – and fast.
While the ADB estimates that combined electricity production in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan has been increasing in recent years, it is not keeping pace with rising demand across the region, a state of affairs exacerbated by chronic underinvestment in its infrastructure. Most of Central Asia’s generation and transmission equipment was installed during the Soviet and many power plants are rapidly approaching the end of their working lives.
The results are predictable with Tajikistan’s Consumers Union Barknest recently reporting that many rural communities only had access to electricity nine hours a day and as little as 7.5 in some of the more remote districts. It is a situation made worse by the fact that, due to a lack of gas supplies, residents also have to use electricity for heating and cooking purposes. Again according to the ADB, some $36bn needs to be invested in Central Asia’s power sector by 2022 principally in the upgrading of existing and construction of new power plants, transmission lines and substations; and, of course, to strengthen power exchange between the countries of the New Silk Road.
In the meantime, the Aral Sea continues to die with the Uzbek authorities facing accusations that it would rather watch it dry out as this would make it easier extract the oil and gas deposits that lie beneath its seabed. In May 2015 its President Islma Karimov announced that $300m had been put aside for initial exploration to be carried out by an international consortium consisting of the Uzbekneftegaz National Holding Company (NHC), Russian’s Lukoil and China’s CNPC.
For whatever reason, the government in Tashkent is now focussing on plans to help improve the living conditions for people living on the perimeter of the Aral desert rather than bringing the sea back.; but creating a few lakes for fish farming or planting some saxaul trees on the seabed to reduce the spread of toxic salts are not going to reverse one of the world’s worst man-made environmental catastrophes.