Lessons from the past: water management in Central Asia

Lessons from the past: water management in Central Asia

Water Policy 2 (2000) 365–384 Lessons from the past: water management in Central Asia Sarah L. O’Hara School of Geography, University of Nottingham, ...

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Water Policy 2 (2000) 365–384

Lessons from the past: water management in Central Asia Sarah L. O’Hara School of Geography, University of Nottingham, Nottingham NG7 2RD, UK

Abstract The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 meant that overnight the newly independent Central Asian Republics (CARs) had to assume responsibility for the management and maintenance of a huge, poorly managed and maintained water distribution and irrigation system. Problems emerged almost immediately with lack of funds virtually halting maintenance programmes and the system rapidly deteriorating. Tension over water has also increased with Kyrgyzstan demanding greater access to the water that is generated on its territory. The situation is likely to worsen as government-backed policies, coupled with predicted population increases, mean that resources will become stressed and demand will far outstretch supply. Given the importance of water to this region it is essential that resources are efficiently managed and used to ensure the economic and social well being of the region into the 21st century. It is evident, however, that the current situation is no longer sustainable and new water management strategies must be developed. This paper provides a brief review of former water management strategies and assesses whether Central Asia can draw on its past to provide insights as to how water should be managed in the future. # 2000 Elsevier Science Ltd. All rights reserved. Keywords: Central Asia; Water management; Irrigation; Agriculture; Conflict

1. Introduction Following the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991 the newly independent states of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan became identified as a new geopolitical region: namely Central Asia (Fig. 1). In the initial euphoria of the post-independence period much was made of the fact that this region boasts vast reserves of oil, gas and gold and it was (and indeed still is) widely believed that the Central Asian Republics (CARs) would experience a resource-based economic transformation (see, for example, Cohen, 1999). But the combinations of low (and often fluctuating) world prices for these commodities and difficulties in getting goods to international markets have meant that this much-heralded transformation has E-mail address: sarah.o’[email protected] (S.L. O’Hara). 1366-7017/00/$ - see front matter # 2000 Elsevier Science Ltd. All rights reserved. PII: S 1 3 6 6 - 7 0 1 7 ( 0 0 ) 0 0 0 1 0 - 6


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Fig. 1. Central Asia showing main irrigation zones.

yet to materialise.1 Instead, the CARs, like other former Soviet states, have faced considerable economic, social and political upheaval as they struggle with the transition from a centrally planned to a market-orientated economy. Thus, declines in GDP have been dramatic and according to calculations from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EDRB), 1998 GDP as a percentage of 1989, ranged from c. 80% in Uzbekistan to a low of 40% for Tajikistan and Turkmenistan (The Economist, 1998). The economic crisis in the region has placed even greater importance on agriculture, which has been and continues to be the mainstay of the economy of all the CARs. However, the agricultural 1

Oil prices have fluctuated considerably over the last few years. In 1998 prices fell to their lowest level in 12 years with a barrel of oil costing less than $10. But following OPEC’s decision to restrict oil supplies, prices have risen sharply and by March 2000 had reached over $30 a barrel (Guardian, 2000). Given that oil and cotton prices are often linked, higher oil prices will benefit all the CARS, either directly through increased oil revenues or indirectly as a result of increased cotton revenue. However, revenues will be subject to the vagaries of international markets and there is no guarantee that the current high prices will be maintained over the long-term. Moreover, initially estimates of oil and gas reserves were widely inflated and rather than being the next Middle-East, Central Asia is more likely to be the next North Sea, with proven reserves of 20–36 billion barrels and ultimate reserves in the region of 40–75 billion barrels. (Rusickas, 1998).

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sector throughout Central Asia is under threat as the break-up of the Soviet Union has had considerable implications for the region’s water distribution and irrigation network, upon which agriculture is almost entirely dependent. The system largely constructed and paid for by the Soviets was built to satisfy Moscow’s continual demands for cotton. In order to maximise agricultural output water was taken from areas of surplus to irrigate desert lands; often involving transfers over considerable distances and in some case from other republics. Today this huge, highly integrated network serves five independent states each following its own agenda for reform. The implications for the region’s water resources are immense and it is becoming increasingly difficult to reach a consensus on how the water distribution and irrigation system should be managed and maintained (Bedford, 1996; O’Hara, 2000). Further complicating the matter has been the rapid deterioration in the state of the network since independence, largely due to the fact that central funding from Moscow has been withdrawn, and that the CARs are either unwilling or unable to meet the enormous cost of managing and maintaining it. A marked reduction in the number of people working in the water management sector has further exacerbated the situation, and there is almost a complete lack of necessary equipment for maintenance purposes (O’Hara & Hannan, 1999; O’Hara, 2000). While the CARs struggle to cope with the enormity of the problem within their own national borders, the question of who pays for the maintenance of those parts which benefit more than one republic is becoming a major political issue. The Kyrgyz, for instance, resent the fact that waters rising on its territory and flowing into the Syr Darya mainly benefit Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, yet the cost of maintaining the dams and reservoirs on its territory must now be met from its budget.2 Water allocations established during the Soviet era have also become a major source of tension between the republics. The Kyrgyz have been extremely vocal on this issue as well, demanding greater access to the water generated on its territory, allowing it to increase the area of land under irrigation and to ensure sufficient hydroelectric power (HEP) production during the winter (Klotzi, 1994; O’Hara, 2000). Although Central Asia’s leaders have met on a number of occasions to discuss regional water resources, and various agreements have been made between the riparian states, as yet no firm treaty has been signed.3 The position as regards to Tajikistan is even more complex as seven years of civil unrest has left many parts of the country without effective government and the economy in tatters. The situation is now so bad that in 1997 a senior Tajik official stated that neither he, nor his embattled 2

In July 1997, the Upper House Assembly of the People’s Representatives of Kyrgyzstan passed a resolution demanding that neighbouring states should pay them for the water they receive, with the money going towards essential repairs. (Slovo Kyrgyzstana, 1997) Kyrgyzstan’s insistence on being paid has created considerable tension between the Republics. See, Goble & Pannier (1997), Bransten (1997) and O’Hara (1998). It would seem that payments have not been made. In May 1999, for example, Kyrgyzstan cut water supplies to Kazakhstan as the Kazakhs had failed to supply Kyrgyzstan with coal as agreed and because the Kyrgyz claimed that the Kazakhs owed them $22 million for electricity. Kazakhstan was also reprimanded for failing to fulfil its obligations to repair jointly used water conservancy facilities (ITAR-TASS News Agency, 1999). 3 There have been various attempts to strengthen interstate water sharing agreements. The United States through the USAID Environmental Policy and Technology Project, for example, supported regional efforts to reach agreement on the operation of the Toktogul dam and reservoir on the Syr Darya. Working with the Interstate Council for Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan (ICKKU), the EPT project helped the three countries reach a framework agreement that was signed in March 1998 (Micklin, 2000). It is worth noting that the agreement has been broken on several occasions since the March 1998 signing see for e.g. ITAR-TASS News Agency (1999).


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government, could make any promises over future water supplies (Goble & Pannier, 1997). Moreover, water is seen as a potential military weapon and in November 1998 a rebel commander in northern Tajikistan threatened to blow up a dam and flood vast areas of Central Asia if the Tajik government did not meet his demands (Witlock, 1998). Since independence, the CARs have struggled to cope with the enormity of their water management problems, however, the situation is not likely to improve and indeed could be exacerbated by changing land and agricultural policies coupled with an increased demand for water as population rises. For example, the policy of food-self sufficiency adopted by all the republics has significant implications for both the amount and timing of water requirements. Furthermore, large tracts of land have been or are in the process of being privatised resulting in the creation of thousands of smallholdings, 2–3 ha in size. The emergence of a large number of small farm units has considerable, but not yet well considered implications for water management. In particular, reduced restrictions on cropping patterns will result in significant changes in water requirements and irrigation scheduling.4 Moreover, most farmers have spent their lives as employees of large farms and were allocated specific tasks. Consequently, they took no part in irrigation and even when they did, decisions on when and how much to irrigate land were often made by others or by committee. Despite the changes that have occurred since the break-up of the Soviet Union the CARs have continued to employ the Soviet system of water management. However, It is becoming increasingly clear that this system is not sustainable and that there is an urgent need to develop new strategies that are able to cope with the increased complexity of the situation. Such management plans must be sensitive to people’s requirements as well as being able to meet the demands of a changing economy and society. Given that Central Asia not only has a long history of irrigated agriculture, but has witnessed the rise and fall of a number of major empires over the last few thousand years, it may well be that lessons can be learned from the past. Thus, an assessment of past events and former irrigation and water management practices may well provide policy-makers valuable insights as to the problems they may face and how future policies should be shaped.

2. Irrigation in Central Asia With the exception of Kazakhstan, the CARs lie almost entirely within the Aral Sea Basin, a large internal drainage system with its terminus at the Aral Sea (Fig. 1). The region is dominated by low-lying deserts, flanked to the south and southeast by extensive mountain ranges, which form the flow generation zone for Central Asia’s main rivers, the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya. Taken together these two rivers account for nearly ninety percent of the total water resources of the Aral Sea basin, which on average is ca. 125 km3 per annum. The remaining ten percent is 4

Since independence the CARs have introduced a number of agricultural and land reforms aimed at improving output and developing a more diverse agricultural base (Lerman, Garcia-Garcia & Wichelns, 1996; O’Hara, 1997a). Although the nature and speed of reforms have varied, being considerably slower in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, the overall trend has been towards the transfer of land to the private sector and achieving greater food self-sufficiency. Notwithstanding these reforms, the governments of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan effectively control the agricultural sector (O’Hara, 1997a).

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derived from the region’s numerous, locally-important, smaller rivers and streams such as the Zeravshan, the Murgap and the Tejen (Fig. 1). From the moment that early agriculturists realised they could divert the flows of Central Asia’s rivers and streams to irrigate their lands and sustain settled agriculture, water has been crucial to the social and economic development of the region. Beginning some 8000 years ago, irrigation gradually spread across the region until about 3000 years ago after which it expanded relatively rapidly. Archaeological evidence suggests that by 2000 years ago some 3.6 million hectares of land were being irrigated in the delta regions of the Amu Darya and Syr Darya alone.5 But, in the 5th century CE periodic invasions by nomadic groups, such as the Huns brought instability to the region. As a result irrigation declined and there is some evidence to suggest that systems were deliberately destroyed (Lewis, 1966). Stability returned in the latter part of the 7th century when the region came under Arab control and irrigated agriculture flourishing once again. Major engineering works were undertaken with the construction of extensive and sophisticated irrigation networks, which often took water many miles from its source to irrigate new lands. The early Islamic period was a time of considerable wealth and prosperity for the region and saw the emergence of cities such as Merv (Turkmenistan) and Samarkand (Uzbekistan) two of the most renowned cultural centres of the mediaeval world. In the early 13th century, however, the region was again subjected to invasion; this time by the Mongols. Overnight settlements literally disappeared and although some of the larger cities survived the onslaught they never regained their former importance. What followed was a period of general decline and economic activities were centred on a number of small locally ruled khanates, such as those at Khiva and Buhkara.6 Central Asia’s period of isolation was short lived, and in the early 18th century Peter the Great began a series of campaigns that over the next 165 years saw the annexation of the vast Central Asian region. The last area to come under its control was Turkmenistan where the largely nomadic population put up strong resistance to Tsarist forces (Saray, 1989). Once subsumed into the Russian Empire teams of agricultural and engineering experts were sent to the region to assess its agricultural potential, particularly for large-scale cotton cultivation. It is estimated that between 2.2 and 2.5 million ha of land were being irrigated at the time, but that it was obvious from the widespread remains of ancient irrigation systems that this area could be substantially increased (Petrov, 1894). Such plans were wholly supported by the Governor of Turkestan, Kaufman, who in 1886 stated that ‘Large-scale irrigation works financed by the government has not only economic significance but great political significance’. Over the next several years numerous ambitious water transfer and irrigation schemes were conceived, including M.N. Ermolaev’s 1908 plan to divert the Amu Darya westwards to irrigate an additional 565,000 ha of land in the Kara Kum Desert and F.P. Morguchenchov’s 1915 plan to irrigate an additional 1.4 million ha of land between the Amu Darya and Caspian sea by diverting the Amu Darya along the course of the old Uzboy River channel (Zaharchenko, 1990; Sakisov, 1992). The Tsarist government was unable to fund such projects and despite initial enthusiasm from private individuals, financial backers could not be found (Pierce, 1960). As a result the 5

There is some suggestion that the climate may have been slightly wetter during this period, resulting in higher discharge; however, it is unlikely that it was significantly greater. 6 It should also be noted that the decline of the Silk Route as a result of the opening up of seafaring further contributed to the regional decline in Central Asia.


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overall increase in the amount of land irrigated during the Tsarist period was fairly modest and generally involved the expansion of existing irrigation systems with the most significant new development being on the Golodnaya (Hungry) Steppe. By 1913, the irrigated area of Central Asia had increased to 3.2 million ha (Pankova, Aydarov, Yamnova, Novokava & Blarovolin, 1996). The situation changed under the Soviets, who like the Tsarist rulers before, believed that Central Asia’s irrigation network could and should be expanded to enable cotton production to be increased. But while Tsarists aspirations were limited because finance was lacking, the Soviets covered the cost of constructing large-scale irrigation schemes from central funds. In 1918 the Council of People’s Commissars allocated 50 million roubles to develop an additional 550,000 ha of irrigated land in Central Asia (Zaharchenko, 1990; Gleason, 1991). Over the next 70 years a huge amount of money was spent on the construction of a number of huge, highly integrated irrigation systems, many of which were based on original plans drawn up by Tsarist engineers. Altogether an additional 4.9 million ha of new land were opened up during the Soviet period bringing the total area of land under irrigation to 7.5 million ha (Micklin & Williams, 1996). As the irrigated area increased so did water use, although the difficulty of harnessing the flows of Central Asia’s largest rivers meant that until the 1960 s usage was limited with most water being taken from the region’s smaller, more easily managed rivers and streams.7 The situation changed dramatically following the construction of major water diversion schemes such as the Kara Kum Canal.8 Between 1960 and 1970 water use in the Aral Sea Basin rose from 64.7 to 103.5 km3 per annum and by the late 1980 s so much water was being extracted from the region’s rivers that flows to the Aral Sea virtually ceased for a few years (Aladin, Plotnikov & Potts, 1995). As a result the level of the sea has declined substantially with a 53% decrease in surface area and a 70% decrease in volume since 1960 (Micklin & Williams, 1996). Further declines are predicted even though discharge to the Aral Sea increased slightly during the 1990s. The devastating social, economic and environmental impacts of excessive water withdrawals from the Amu Darya and other major rivers in Central Asia are well documented (Micklin, 1991, 1994, 1998; Le´tolle & Mainguet, 1993; Tsukatani, 1998; O’Hara, Wiggs, Mamedov, Davidson & Hubbard, 2000; UNEP, 1992), with the decline of the Aral Sea being described in a diagnostic study by the UNEP as ‘one of the most staggering disasters of the Twentieth century’ (Micklin, 1991, 1994, 1998; Le´tolle & Mainguet, 1993; Tsukatani, 1998; O’Hara et al., 2000, UNEP, 1992). Despite the fact that Central Asia’s water resources were exhausted, Moscow continued to demand further increases in cotton production. To the planners in Moscow there were still large areas of Central Asia where the soils and climate were ideal for cultivation, if only there was sufficient water for irrigation. So drawing on ideas first suggested by Tsarist engineers, plans were made to divert water from the Siberian rivers, south into the interior (Fig. 1). SIBARAL as it became known was to be constructed in two phases. The first phase was scheduled for completion in the late 1980s–early 1990s and involved the transfer of 27.2 km3 of water from the northern rivers. In the second phase, due to be completed by 2020, the amount of water being transferred was to increase to 60 km3 (Micklin, 1991). Although most of this water was designated for 7

As recently as the late 1950s as little as 17% of the discharge of the Amu Darya was being used (Lewis, 1961). The Kara Kum Canal was renamed the Kara Kum River in March 1999. Batyr Mamedov, Institute of Flora and Fauna, Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, personal communication to author (December 1999). 8

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irrigation schemes some was be used to help alleviate the problems of the Aral Sea. Preliminary work on the project began in the mid-1980s but following Gorbachev accession to the Soviet leadership enthusiasm for SIBARAL began to wane. Concern was raised about the environmental impacts of such a large-scale water diversion, the cost of implementing such a project and the real economic benefits that would be gained from opening new agricultural lands. Others highlighted that fact that the existing irrigation system was highly inefficient and poorly managed resulting in both a huge waste of water and widespread soil degradation. Thus, much to the chagrin of many Central Asian leaders and scientists, the 12th 5-year plan called for improvement in water use throughout Central Asia (Micklin, 1987) and made no mention of SIBARAL. In an attempt to increase flows into the Aral Sea the amount of water allocated to each of the CARs was also reduced. At the same time efforts were made to improve water use efficiency so that the irrigated area could be further expanded. The collapse of the Soviet Union brought an abrupt halt to these plans and despite various initiatives from the international community (Micklin, 1998) and verbal commitments from the CARs to increase flows to the Aral Sea,9 there has been little change in national water-use, with water resources throughout Central Asia remaining fully utilised.10 Indeed many scientists and water management officials from the region are still of the view that the problem of water shortage in the region will only be solved by diverting the northern rivers.11 3. Water and land management in Central Asia 3.1. Traditional systems Our understanding of how Central Asia’s earliest irrigation networks were managed is extremely limited although it is likely that sophisticated organisational structures were in place at 9 According to Philip Micklin average discharge to the Aral Sea fell from 56 km3 per annum for the period 1911 and 1960 to 6 km3 per annum. Heavy flow years between 1990 and 1994 resulted in average discharge increased slightly to c. 15 km3, although this was a temporary phenomenon. He goes on to conclude that hydrologic probability indicates that basin flow over the longer term will be substantially less than the early 1990s but above that of the 1980s and that a conservative, but reasonable estimate would suggest future inflows to the sea being approximately 10 km3. (Micklin, 2000). To restore the Aral Sea to its 1960 level would require an average discharge of 45 km3 while preventing further shrinkage would mean ensuring an inflow of c. 25 km3. Such increases in discharge to the seas would require a substantial reduction in water use which is unlikely at the present time. Moreover, many experts believe that any additional water within the Amu Darya system at least should be used to rehabilitate the deltaic ecosystems rather than be dumped into the large Aral Sea to uselessly evaporate (Micklin, 2000). 10 Recognising the importance of water and the enormity of the Aral Sea crisis, representatives of the five CARs met in 1992 and signed the Almaty Agreement, under which member states agreed to adhere to existing water allocations established in 1987. Afghanistan was not allocated water under this agreement and has been effectively ignored in subsequent discussions on water allocations and use in the Aral Sea Basin. Yet, given that over 5% of water resources available for use in the Aral Sea basin are generated on Afghan territories representatives from region should be included in all talks. Moreover, while the current civil unrest in the region has reduced the amount of water being extracted from Afghan rivers that drain into the Aral Sea Basin, it is likely that demand in this region will also increase in the future, further adding to the competition for water in the Aral Sea Basin (O’Hara, 2000). 11 Interviews with officials employed in the water management sector in both Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, found that there is a widespread belief that current problems with water shortages could easily be solved if the European Union would pay for the construction of the SIBARAL Project.


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a very early stage. Amongst ancient Zoroastrians, for example, daily prayers were offered up to water, and people who worked on the irrigation network and reclaimed land from the desert were held in high esteem (McGovern, 1939). It was not until the 9th–13th century, however, that the first detailed descriptions of water management, written by Arabic historians and geographers such as Mukaddasi, Al-Biruni and Yakut, became available (Le Strange, 1930). Their writings provide valuable accounts of water distribution and irrigation systems and it is evident that the administration of scarce water resources was central to the way in which the social and political hierarchy of settlements operated. Water was viewed as a ‘Gift from God’ which could not be owned or controlled by an individual. Descriptions from Merv, for example, provide an excellent illustration of the situation at the time. The city of Merv, only had access to one source of water, the Murgap River, which rises in the Afghan Mountains and drains northward into the Kara Kum Desert. The river’s annual discharge is about 1.2 km3,12 or approximately one percent of the available water in the Aral Sea Basin. The Merv oasis was renowned for its productivity and not only produced enough food to feed its large population, but was able to export produce to adjacent areas (Herrmann & Petersen, 1996). The region’s agricultural success was in part due to the land and water management strategies of the time. Land, for example, was divided into small plots that were intensively cultivated and received water on a regular basis. Mukaddasi, writing in the 10th century described, how a depth gauge situated at the Razik Dam to the south of the city was used to determine whether there would be a surplus or deficit of water that year. If the level reached the 60th point, water would be plentiful that year and the order would be given to increase the amount of land cultivated. In years of low water availability the area was reduced and only the best lands were cultivated. The dam was extremely important and was, in effect, the only water storage facility for the city. Ensuring that it was fully maintained was a round-the-clock task and 400 divers were employed solely for this task with each diver having to deliver a specified amount of wood and mud to the dam each day (Barthold, 1914). Yakut, who resided in the city for a number of years, at its zenith in the early 13th century, provides further details of the system at Merv. He described how water gauges were installed at the head of every canal throughout the city. The whole system was headed by the Mirab13 and hourly reports on the level of water in the main canal were passed to his office to enable decisions to be made as to which off-takes were to be opened and closed. The system was so large that over 12,000 people were employed to management and maintain it. These workers were paid by the water users, who themselves were expected to take part in annual maintenance programmes. The irrigation system at Merv appears to have been very successful. Archaeological investigation, for example, suggests that soil salinisation, which plagues many modern systems, was not a problem in the Merv oasis despite many hundreds of years of irrigation (Nesbitt & O’Hara, 2000). Whether this was due to good management strategies is impossible to tell. However, it is possible that the tight control over limited supplies of water ensured that fields were not over watered, thereby reducing problems associated with water logging.


This figure is the current average flow of the Murgap River. Although it is possible that discharge was greater in the 9th–12th centuries, it will not have been significantly so. 13 Literally means water master from the Arabic Mir (master) and Ab (water)

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Water management strategies described by the Arabic Historians and Geographers were still in place when Central Asia came under Tsarist rule. Von Middendorf (1882), for example, provides an excellent overview of how water was managed in the Kokand (Qoqand) Khanate of the Fergana Valley.14 As with other Central Asian Khanates the Khan acted as the steward of water rights for Allah, which meant that the state effectively retained the right of ownership. Within the central government the most important official was the mirab bashi who had considerable power being responsible for the highly important and often contentious decisions of water allocation and distribution. The mirab bashi was elected by the water user communities and paid in kind (usually by a proportion of the grain harvest) by the dehqans.15 This payment known as Kipsen was never a consistent percentage of the crop, as the farmer paid depending on how satisfied he was with the job that the mirab bashi was doing. Thus, the mirab bashi was both elected and sanctioned by the water users. Secondary canals were overseen by local mirabs, who lived within the zone of his jurisdiction and who, according to Von Middendorf, ‘knew his district in minute detail’ (Von Middendorf, 1882). In many cases the mirab was assisted by the Ariq amin who was responsible for smaller canals know as ariqs. Like the mirab bashi, mirabs were also elected and paid by the deqhans. The construction and maintenance of the irrigation system as well as the distribution of water at the village level was the responsibility of the ketman, essentially a water user association comprising 3–4 villages. Each village elected an elder (aqsaqal) who made decisions based on discussions with other village elders. Often one aqsaqal would be elected to represent the ketman as a whole. Ketman were further divided into smaller units, known as a top, which consisted of a few streets or a family unit. When it was necessary to undertake construction work, the mirab bashi and mirabs would conscript water users to do the work. Villages at the head of a planned new ariq (water supply canal), who would receive more and fresher water, were expected to contribute more to the project in terms of time and resources. If a major project was proposed, however, it was necessary to call for help from other communities. While the construction of new canals and other irrigation infrastructure was a one-off job, maintaining the system and keeping the ariq and drains free of silt and vegetation was a continual undertaking and it was obligatory for all water users to take part in the annual maintenance of the network. Hashar as it was known was the most important affair in the village administration and individuals who refused to take part in it were fined or denied access to communally allocated land and water. People were even assigned communal lands based on contributions of labour to hashar. Hashar accomplished two things. First, it provided a mechanism for the mobilisation of labour and materials for irrigation development. Second it was a means with which to maintain the system. It was, according to Von Middendorf a ‘tax which was understood, and developed within local conditions; the population has become accustomed to its fulfilment since childhood’ (Von Middendorf, 1882). Thus, in effect hashar was a system that linked benefits to duty.


For an excellent description and analysis of the irrigation system in the Kokand (Qoqand) Khanate from the 1870s to the 1990s see Thurman (1999). 15 Dehqans are peasant farmers. This term has recently been re-introduced to the region.


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3.2. The Tsarist period When Central Asia came under Tsarist control, the new administration attempted to introduce reforms in the irrigation sector, but these failed and the authorities declared that irrigation would be run ‘by custom’ (Thurman, 1999). Not withstanding this a number of subtle changes were made the most important of which was the fact that irrigation officials became part of the Tsarist civil service and, as Thurman comments, were no longer ‘hired, fired and paid for’ by water users (Thurman, 1999). This act severed the link between water users and providers and effectively undermined the traditional system of water management. Moreover, salaries for officials were low, and no longer did any incentive to control the system exist, as had been the case previously. The situation was exacerbated by the imposition of irrigation officials unaccustomed to the traditional method of management with the net result being increased problems within the system, which became subject to corruption and abuse, by the wealthy and more powerful water users. More significant than Tsarist interventions in water management, however, were changes in agricultural policies. The authorities in Moscow, keen to end their reliance on America for cotton (particularly following the American Civil War when supplies almost ceased), recognised that Central Asia had the potential to become a major cotton growing region. Indeed the main factor behind initiatives to increase the amount of land irrigated was cotton production (Lipovsky, 1995). Incentives in the form of credits were given to local farmers and public lands were transferred to businessmen, for 99-year periods, if they undertook to construct the irrigation system with the bulk of this land being sown to cotton. Indeed the demand for cotton was such that in 1912 the Russian Minister of Agriculture, Krivoshein, concluded that ‘The present development of cotton plantations can and should be intensified still further by the means of further reducing the quantity of grain crops planted on irrigated lands’. Various state subsidies and incentives were introduced which meant that greater profits could be gained from cotton compared with other crops such as wheat (Lipovsky, 1995). Interestingly, however, attempts to introduce large cotton plantation along lines similar to the USA were not successful because of the huge labour requirements associated with growing cotton, and plantation owners quickly went bankrupt. In contrast small-scale family based units were found to be a more suitable form of cultivating cotton in this region.16 Further changes in the agricultural sector resulted from the relaxation of cropping restrictions. Rice cultivation, for example, which in some areas had been determined by the Khan, became more widespread, increasing demand for water. Consequently, as modes of production changed, so did water requirements. Competition for water intensified, and traditional forms of organisation were greatly weakened. Mirab elections became sales to the highest bidder and water poaching became so widespread that towards the end of the Tsarist period there were growing calls for the state to play a greater role in the management of water (Thurman, 1997). Thus, as Williams (1967) pointed out, it was the Russian’s ‘Laissez-faire approach to local water management that created problems in that changes in land tenure, taxation, agriculture and other 16

By the time of the Bolshevik Revolution the amount of cotton Central Asia produced had risen significantly and the Tsarist Empire was no longer dependent on the USA for its supply. The reduction in the amount of land sown to grain, however, meant that Central Asia experienced a deficit of wheat and was no longer self-sufficient as it was before, a situation that continues to the present day.

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aspects of the local economy wrought by the Russian arrival were not matched by any kind of organised approach to change water management. Local custom was left alone, but the context within which the custom had developed was irrevocably altered’ (Williams, 1967). The subtle, but nonetheless important changes in water management coupled with increased demand and use of water appears to have caused widespread land degradation. According to Mattley, attempts to develop new lands in the Kyzly Kum Desert, merely resulted in the ‘formation of new areas of swampland’ (Matley, 1967). Similar problems were noted in the Merv region where the irrigation network expanded by some 33,000 ha (Zaharchenko, 1990). Here water tables rose, causing soils to become saline and widespread surface ponding resulted in outbreaks of Malaria (Pierce, 1960). Increased problems with soil salinisation were also apparent in the Fergana valley and have been associated with over watering in some regions (Thurman, 1999). Clearly, the move towards large-scale irrigation and a shift to crops such as cotton, which had higher water requirements, were not only instrumental in increasing competition for water, but for the apparent increase in land degradation in the main irrigation zones. 3.3. The Soviet period The Bolshevik Revolution and subsequent emergence of the Soviet Union heralded a period of radical change in water management in Central Asia. In 1923, the Soviet administration decreed that water management was to be taken ‘out of the hands of traditional elders and councils with whom it resided’ (Black, Dupree, Endicott-West, Naby, Matuszewski & Waldron, 1991), and together with land it was to become a common resource to be used for the benefit of all. Various government bodies were established who were responsible for the development of a regional water management strategy that would allow centrally determined production targets to be met. As far as Moscow was concerned cotton production was the single most important task for the CARs. To ensure targets were met, the irrigation system had to be expanded. Huge sums of money invested in the region’s water distribution and irrigation network (Micklin, 1991) resulted in the development of a massive highly integrated system. Consequently, a single local source no longer irrigated the land as in the past. Rather, irrigation water came from considerable distances. The Kara Kum Canal, for example, considered to be one of the engineering feats of the Soviet Era, now transfers c. 12.9 km3 of water from the Amu Darya17 along its 1400 km length every year and irrigates an area of c. 1 million (Hannan & O’Hara, 1998). The Soviets established irrigation norms and used these to calculate water requirements at the beginning of the main growing season. Irrigation norms were determined using scientifically calculated hydro-modules. Turkmenistan, for example, was divided into six hydrologic regions based on soil type and local climate, which specified (and still do) the amount of water to be applied on a 10-day basis throughout the year for different crop types (Gosagprom, 1990). Determining water requirements took a bottom-up approach, with brigade leaders calculating the needs for their brigade area (usually 50–100 ha of land) which were passed on to the farm’s hydrotechnician to compile for the farm as a whole. These data were then sent to local (rayon), regional 17

Under a bi-lateral agreement with Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan is allowed to extract 12.9 km3 of water annually from the Amu Darya via the Kara Kum Canal. Some estimates, however, place the actual figure at c. 15–20 km3 per annum (Hannan & O’Hara, 1998; Glantz, 1998).


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(oblast) and national (republic) offices before finally being submitted to Tashkent where water requirements for the whole of Central Asia were collated. Once these data had been collated instructions were sent to the various agencies responsible for water deliveries informing them of when, and how much water was to be moved to various parts of the network. Thus, in the case of Turkmenistan’s Kara Kum Canal the canal management board (KCMB) had to ensure that there was sufficient water in the canal to meet demand at all times. Once the water passed into the secondary network its distribution becomes the responsibility of the Regional Directorates of the Ministry of Land Reclamation and Water Management until the water arrived at the farm gate. Beyond this point, water distribution was the responsibility of the farm. While the different bodies charged with the management and distribution of water appeared to form a highly integrated system, in practice this was not the case. So, for example, it was not uncommon for two departments under the same Ministry to have little direct communication with each other, all discussion being done via Moscow. The general lack of communication would often lead to inefficient water use. The KCMB, for instance, would be given quotas for 10-day periods (based on the hydro-modules), if water was not required for any reason the KCMB were generally not informed and there would be too much water in the canal. When this occurred excess water would merely be discharged to the desert and wasted (O’Hara & Hannan, 1999; Hannan & O’Hara, 1998). There has been much criticism of the management and maintenance of Soviet irrigation systems (Micklin, 1991) and inefficient water use was widespread. Losses occurred throughout the system with problems of seepage and evaporation from the many thousands of kilometres of unlined irrigation canals creating huge problems with water logging and soil salinisation. Within a few years of the Kara Kum Canal being constructed the water table in the Merv region had risen over 20 m (Kornilov & Timoshinka, 1975) and vast tracts of land had become salinised (O’Hara, 1997b). Water use at the field level also rose as field size increased to accommodate bigger and bigger agricultural machinery. This not only increased the amount of time that it took to water fields, but also meant that the traditionally practise of night-time watering gave way to day and often continues 24-h irrigation.18 Yet despite an emphasis on the need to modernise the agricultural sector, furrow irrigation continued to dominate with large and poorly levelled fields creating huge problems for irrigators. But unlike the past, access to water was not a problem. Diversion schemes brought what seemed to many an infinite supply of free water; the population, who had long viewed water as a scarce commodity, forgot its worth. Under the Soviets a number of government agencies emerged that were responsible for amongst other things, maintaining the irrigation infrastructure, dredging canals, and ensuring the drainage system was clean. At the farm level, maintenance became the responsibility of a few collective workers and in all cases the bulk of the work was done using heavy equipment. Communal maintenance, however, did continue at the very local scale in many rural areas and villagers continued (and still do) to gather each year to clean and build new irrigation canals that fed small household plots. However, beyond this water users had nothing to do with the management or maintenance of the water distribution and irrigation system. Thus, despite Soviet successes in expanding the irrigation network and increasing agricultural output, Soviet-built systems are inflexible and highly inefficient. Water losses are enormous both 18

Interview with Victor Krochmal, Turkmengiprovodhoz, November 1996.

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at the conveyance and field level with some estimates placing overall efficiencies at less than 25% (O’Hara & Hannan, 1999). Coupled with a lack of adequate drainage, this resulted in widespread water logging and secondary salinisation (Kornilov & Timoshinka, 1975; Smith, 1992; O’Hara, 1997b). By the 1980s, Turkmenistan alone annually abandoned over 50,000 ha of land because of soil degradation (Zaharchenko, 1994).

4. Water and conflict in Central Asia Given its importance to Central Asian society it is not surprising that water has long being a source of tension and conflict in the area. Writing nearly 2500 years ago, the Greek historian Herodotus noted how the ruler of the time had dammed one of the rivers and that ‘from that time the five nations which were wont formally to have the use of the stream, losing the accustomed supply of water have been in great distress’. It was only after the people had grovelled to the king and ‘paid him a large sum of money over and above the tribute’ that the water was allowed to flow to their lands. Later, in the early 13th century the Mongols took advantage of the fact that many towns and cities were reliant on a single water source to aid in their conquest of the region. Time after time they forced settlements to capitulate by disrupting water supplies and damaging irrigation structures. At Merv, for example, all they needed to do was destroy the Razik dam that controlled water in the oasis to bring about the city’s surrender. In most cases, however, disputes tended to be localised and were mainly concerned with gaining control over irrigated lands rather than water per se. Moreover, there were many examples where water-sharing arrangements existed. The cities of Samakhand and Bukhara, located on the Zeravshan River, for instance, had long established agreements on water distribution whereby Samakhand (the upstream river) would close some or all of its off-takes to increase flow to Bukhara at certain times during the main growing season. Agreements were also made at a more local level with the amount of water given to individual users determined by a variety of factors. In general, however, each settlement had its own set of rules and regulations on water use with locations being based on their own personal circumstances and as these changed so would entitlements. In the early 1800s, for example, settlements in southern Turkmenistan used a system know as Sanashyk where all men able to defend the community from the enemy and to take part in the construction and maintenance of the irrigation system had a right to water. As the population grew, however, it was necessary to change entitlements, so that by the latter part of the 18th century only married men were eligible to take water in their own right (Yaziliev, 1992). Indeed competition for water by the end of the 19th century appears to have increased elsewhere and, as already discussed, increased tension in the Fergana Valley. The Soviets, who placed considerable importance on collective ownership of natural resources, frequently criticised traditional water management strategies, seeing them as abuses of the rights of the ordinary people with only the privileged able to gain access to water. Conflicts over water and the potential for corruption and abuse of position by the Mirabs were central to the plots of various books, plays and even an opera written in the Soviet period. Yet, ironically, the Soviets themselves were able to control water resources to their own advantage. The carving up of Central Asia, in accordance with Stalin’s pronouncement ‘Socialist in content. National in form’, for example, created two water-rich and three water-deficit republics. Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan,


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and Uzbekistan with little in the way of indigenous water resources almost entirely relied on water from Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. To ensure sufficient water to meet summer irrigation needs, huge reservoirs were built in mountainous regions of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. These facilities not only stored water, but also were built with considerable HEP potential. The markedly different water requirements of the upstream and downstream republics were (and still are) problematic. During the Soviet period, decisions on the timing and amount of water releases would be made in Moscow, which for years ordered Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to empty their reservoirs so that the cotton fields could be irrigated. Part of the revenues gained from selling cotton were then used to provide Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan with just enough subsidies to keep the operation going (Bransten, 1997). Such competition worked to Moscow’s advantage in two ways. First, disputes over water reinforced the national distinctiveness of the republics, thus limiting the potential for regional political co-operation which would threaten Soviet control. Second, as competition for water increased, the Republics had little choice but to ask Moscow to intervene, a role Moscow willingly undertook. In short, water policy played a major part in Moscow’s efforts to divide and rule in this part of the Soviet Empire. Yet tensions over water began to surface in some of the more densely populated and ethnically mixed regions in the latter part of the Soviet period. One of the main problem areas was the Fergana Valley, where the republics of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan share borders and significant pockets of ethnic minorities dominate. Disputes between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz in the Fergana Valley, for example, are not uncommon, with over 20 reported clashes between the two groups during the 19th century (Kamilov, 1992). In 1990 Uzbeks and Kyrgyz fought over land rights in the city of Osh when a Kyrgyz co-operative was given official permission to build residential buildings on the irrigated lands of an Uzbek Kolkhoz. Over 300 people are believed to have died and more than a 1000 were injured during these clashes and following them the Uzbek minority in Kyrgyzstan claimed an autonomy status in the Osh region (Klotzi, 1994). Border disputes between the two republics continue. In February 1999, a deputy in Kyrgyzstan’s parliament, Dooroonbek Sadyrbayev, stated that the Uzbeks were violating border positions. Moreover, several Kyrgyz officials have commented on the fact that Uzbekistan is the sole recipient of water that is stored in a number of supply reservoirs situated along the common border and there is some concern that new disputes over water will emerge (Pannier, 1999).

5. Learning from the past Irrigation and water management has played an important role in Central Asian history and it is clear that the administration of water resources was central to the way in which the region’s social and political hierarchy developed. But can anything be learned from the past which could help shape future water policies in Central Asia? The simple answer to this question is ‘yes’. It is clear that traditional irrigation systems were generally localised and often depended on a single, limited water supply that fluctuated considerably from year to year. As a result, water management required considerable skill and the mirab bashi, who was responsible for the highly important and often contentious decisions on water allocation and distribution, was one of the most senior officials in the central government. Indeed the success of many political officials often

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hinged on their skill at managing local water resources. Yet while water was managed centrally, all water users were responsible for the upkeep of the system with those gaining more, being expected to contribute more. The fact that individuals could benefit as a result of their efforts gave all users a vested interest in ensuring that the irrigation network was maintained and that water was used efficiently. The Soviet system effectively severed this link, and while the system remained centrally managed, it was managed from afar. The administration was merely concerned with maximising cotton output and gave little thought to the social, economic, and environmental costs of achieving output targets. Together with the collectivisation of land, the imposition of centralplanning meant that benefits were no longer linked to duty and water users had no say in how the system was managed nor were they responsible for its maintenance. Moreover, the establishment of a myriad of agencies charged with overseeing different parts of the network resulted in unnecessary bureaucracy and waste. Furthermore, as instructions were issues directly from Moscow, local managers were not use to taking decisions and lacked knowledge of other parts of the water management system. An unwillingness to accept responsibility resulted in a ‘culture of blame’ } problems always were considered the responsibility of others.19 It is also clear that the massive expansion of irrigation during the Soviet period had a number of significant implications. First, inter-annual variations in water availability were reduced. Second, many areas with limited water supplies now had access to an apparent infinite supply of water. Although this had a number of benefits in terms of crop planning and expanding the agricultural sector, it also meant that the skill of managing scarce water resources became a thing of the past. More significantly, it resulted in a fundamental shift in people’s perception of water and the oftquoted Central Asian adage that ‘a drop of water is like a drop of gold’ gave way to a new saying ‘if a little water is good for the crop, then a lot is better’. Third, as the network expanded so did its maintenance requirements and, although the Soviets made much of the fact that heavy machinery would replace people and do much of the hard work, in reality this rarely happened. Far too often Soviet irrigation networks were not only poorly built but lacked the infrastructure essential for proper maintenance. For example, there is virtually no land access to large sections of the Kara Kum Canal making even routine maintenance impossible (Hannan & O’Hara, 1998). Moreover, in many areas there are simply not enough people to look after the system. Thus, the tendency towards ‘giganotmania’ which characterised so many Soviet projects resulted in the construction of a huge, highly inflexible water distribution and irrigation network that are difficult and very expensive to maintain. In sum traditional irrigation and water distribution systems tended to be small, but had high productivity, were well managed, extremely efficient and sustainable over the long term. In contrast Soviet built systems are huge, inefficient, inflexible, poorly managed and for the most part, unsustainable. Yet although traditional systems appear to have been environmentally sustainable, the successes of individual systems varied over time and to a large extent were dependent on prevailing political conditions. For example, networks often expanded during periods of 19

Interviews were undertaken with various officials working in the water management sector during three periods of fieldwork in 1996–1998. It was clear from their responses that the responsibility of dealing with problems within the water management system always belonged to someone else and there was a firm belief that the solution to current problems lies with the senior management or even the national government, but rather the international community.


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politically stability, often when a single polity ruled over the area,20 and declined following periods of invasion or when internal political conditions were unstable. The decline in the water distribution and irrigation network since the break-up of the Soviet Union is thus unsurprising and we are merely seeing history repeat itself. What remains to be seen, however, is how this decline is managed and what can be done to stop it and then ensure the future sustainability of Central Asia’s water distribution and irrigation network. The problem is that although we can learn from the past we cannot go back to it. The CARs have not only inherited a Soviet-built irrigation system, but many high ranking officials both within the water management sector and the government are themselves a product of the Soviet system. At the local level there is an urgent need to re-kindle a sense of responsibility amongst water users, not only in terms of water use, but also in the role individuals must play in the management and maintenance of the system. At the same time people must be made more aware of the value of water and the implications of irresponsible and wasteful irrigation practices. Moreover, farms must be prepared to take responsibility, at the very least, for that part of the system that services their land. One possible way forward would be the introduction of certain aspects of traditional systems into the existing Soviet framework. Establishing farmer associations, for example, based around former state and collective farms may provide one way forward. Such bodies could act as a local support and extension network for farmers, including acting as water user associations. This could be an effective way of providing on-farm training as well as managing and policing water use at the local level. Individuals within the association would be responsible for local water management including the calculation of water requirements, determination of irrigation schedules, the organisation of maintenance programmes and the implementation of good irrigation practice. Individual farmers would submit cropping plans to an elected water management group who would determine total requirements and ensure that users receive water at the allotted time. Should the situation arise where demand exceeds supply, the farmerassociation members as a group would be responsible for prioritising water allocation, a situation that in many ways resembles the traditional, pre-Soviet form of water management. However, it will be essential that all members have an equal say in these decisions to minimise the chance of abuse within the system, a feature of traditional systems which the Soviets were so critical of. But, the potential for developing such associations will be limited until people feel that they truly own the land, which is not the case in all of the Republics at present21 and a ‘culture of equality’ emerges. 20

The link between irrigation systems, political organisation and modes of production has been the source of considerable debate between political and social scientists. Wittfogel (1958) concluded that the ability of early hydraulic civilisations such as the Mesopotanians and Mesoamericans to control water was important in the way their societies developed. He argued that the manipulation of water resources for agricultural purposes was so extensive that it was necessary to develop well-organised social systems for their construction, administration and maintenance which in turn lead to centrally administered social and political systems. Conversely, Glick (1971) believes that power is the basis for the control of water and not the reverse, while other researchers, such as Butzer (1976) argue that irrigation systems may have been centrally controlled and managed by community leaders. 21 Land reforms in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have created a large number of private farmers, but all land remains under government ownership. In Uzbekistan, for example, a new comprehensive Land Code came into effect on the 1st July 1999 which states that ‘land is the property of the state . . . and is not subject to sale or purchase, exchange presentation as gift or mortgaging . . . ’ (The Cyber-Caravan, 1998).

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It is not only the issue of water management that needs to be addressed, however. It is evident that changing agricultural practices have had significant impacts in the past. For example, Tsarist agricultural policies aimed at increasing cotton production significant influenced water requirements. By failing to recognise and address the issue, the administration created unnecessary problems that led to increased competition over water. A remarkably similar situation is emerging at present with all the CARs adopting agricultural policies aimed at achieving food self-sufficiency. Such policies have been aggressively promoted, but with little if any consideration of the consequences. A recent assessment of national water requirements, for example, found that demand has risen to 151.8 km3 (WARMAP, 1996), a figure that far outstrips supply.22 Thus, to avert future conflicts over water, demand must be reduced. While the impetus should come from the centre, successful management at the local level will be essential to the overall strategy of managing water at the regional level. As competition for water increases, co-operation between the republics will become even more important, but the creation of water-rich and water-deficit states, as part of the Soviet policy to divide and rule, will have long-term implications for the region and could ultimately undermine regional co-operation. The upstream republics have inherited control of the region’s water resources and can, if they wish, determine when water is allowed to flow downstream. Indeed, Kyrgyzstan has already shown that it can and will use this power to its advantage, rather negating the rhetoric of regional co-operation (Bedford, 1996; O’Hara, 2000). The situation will be further complicated should Afghanistan increase withdrawals from the Amu Darya as they are likely to do at some point in the future (Bedford, 1996; O’Hara, 2000). The potential for conflicts at the local level could also increase as land reforms progress, and farmers, as is already the case in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, are allowed to grow what they want. As cropping patterns change the timing and amount of water required will change with it. Moreover, during the Soviet period failure to irrigate on time had little impact on individuals whereas now it will directly affect their quality of life. These changes need to be carefully planned and monitored if they are not to have an adverse impact on an already failing system.

6. Conclusion Formulating a strategy for managing Central Asia’s water resources will be extremely difficult and, if anything, will become even more complex as the system continues to fail and demands on it increase. In the immediate future funding is critical to ensure that the system is maintained and continues to function, but over the longer term effective management will be essential. Improvements will have to be at a number of levels. First, at the local level it will be important to re-introduce a sense of responsibility amongst all water users. This will only be achieved when 22

Determining the actual amount of water available for use in the Aral Sea Basin in any given year is quite complex. Micklin estimates that in a low flow year this figure is around 119 km3, although this assumes that all spring high flow can be stored for later use and the filling of multi-year reservoirs to capacity at the beginning of the dry season. Moreover, it would be necessary to make full use of usable groundwater supplies and return flows. Reaching these conditions is unlikely and during low flow years as is the case in 2000 the amount of water available to downstream countries will be reduced thus creating tension between upstream and downstream users. For a detailed analysis of available water resources in the Aral Sea Basin, see Micklin (2000).


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farmers benefit from ensuring that the irrigation systems are well maintained and managed. Establishing water user associations could prove an important move forward and it may well be that elements of pre-Soviet forms of management could be re-introduced. At the national levels, governments must gain a better understanding of the implications of changing agricultural policies and encourage farmers to improve water use. At the regional level co-operation between the republics will be essential. Failure to address these issues will effectively undermine the social, political and economic development of the entire region and could threaten regional security. There is no doubt that Central Asia’s leaders are now faced with the considerable challenge of developing the region’s future water management strategies. It is clear that they would do well to look to the past for some of the answers to their problems.

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