This question is regularly asked around the world: Some experts believe that without introducing purely economic and trade relations to the use and distribution of water resources, in particular, it is a question of transboundary rivers, it is difficult to manage, given the specifics of interstate relations and the priority of national interests in such a difficult issue.
Each of the countries has obvious motives for taking and using water where it is under its political control. At the same time, there are generally no clear incentives to preserve or protect stocks in the interests of users who are beyond the state borders. It is also important to understand that in many countries rivers or lakes are a key component of national self-awareness, which means that ownership and control over watercourses is inevitably regarded as a vital factor in protecting national interests.
In this vein for many years one sees the current situation in a number of Central Asian republics. These are the mountain states of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, which are the countries of the so-called “upper reaches”. From them to the countries of the lower reaches – Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan – such large transboundary rivers as the Syr Darya and the Amudarya flow, they also form the basin of the once-fourth largest lake in the world – the now shrinking Aral Sea.
These rivers originate in the mountains and feed on glaciers, and therefore the main reservoirs, hydroelectric power stations and reservoirs are located on the territory of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, which allows them, in turn, to independently regulate the flow for the remaining three neighboring states. This state of affairs, naturally, cannot suit the countries of the lower reaches, which are peculiar hostages to the republics that own a strategically important “water tap” for the whole region.
As the quality of water deteriorates or the demand for it worsens, the competition for water between its consumers is exacerbated. And so it happens all over the world. At the same time, if you look at international experience, it becomes obvious that in many situations the need to share water not only does not cause conflicts, but vice versa, stimulates an unexpected partnership, and leads to real cooperation.
There are 263 international water basins in the world that cross the political borders between two or more countries. These basins, on whose territory about 40% of the world’s population lives, cover about half the area of the earth’s surface. They account for about 60% of all available fresh water on Earth. The international basins partially capture the territory of 145 countries. And every year, the watercourses crossing national borders acquire ever more important, strategic significance.
Over the past 50 years, there have been only 37 violent disputes caused by violent disagreement over water resources, while 150 related treaties were signed during the same period. The history of international agreements goes back a long time – several millennia ago, two Sumerian city-states Lagash and Ummah concluded an agreement that put an end to the dispute over water in the Tigris River and which is often called the earliest known international treaty in the water sphere in the history of mankind.
International legal agreements on joint use of water resources were even among the worst enemies and were carried out during periods of mutual conflicts on other issues. Since 1955, Israel and Jordan, with the participation of the United States, regularly hold talks on the joint use of the water resources of the Jordan River, although until recently these countries have been legally at war with each other. Another vivid example is connected with the Indus River, a commission created with the support of the World Bank, survived three wars between India and Pakistan. In February 1999, in order to combat poverty and stimulate economic development in the region, an agreement was reached on the basin of the largest Nile River, where more than 160 million people live and 10 countries are located.
At the same time, it is necessary to recognize that such agreements are not given to countries easily. Negotiating processes last for many years, for example, to reach an agreement on the Jordan it took as much as 4 decades, according to the Indus – 10 years. This time was necessary to strengthen mutual trust and create a sense of responsibility for the process among the involved states. As a rule, the financial component of the issue is of no less importance. But all these investments, the most difficult negotiations and the need to compromise, ultimately cooperate in the field of water use. And the countries that have chosen the path of partnership, rather than competition and conflicts, in any case, win, but do not lose, acquire, and do not lose.
International law plays a special role in establishing this kind of cooperation. At the same time, according to the existing world order, transboundary waters of rivers belong to the territories of border states and form part of these territories. This norm is not disputed by anyone. According to the so-called “Helsinki Rules for the Use of Waters of International Rivers”, since 1966, every state in the basin has the right within its territory to a reasonable and fair share in obtaining benefits from the use of the waters of this basin itself. This principle is called the principle of “reasonable and equitable use.”
There are also international water conventions of the UN, from 1992 and 1997. However, the countries of Central Asia, experiencing long-standing contradictions and hidden, and often obvious dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs in the use of the water resources of the transboundary Amudarya and Syr Darya, are also divided regarding their views on the international legal interpretation.
The countries of the lower reaches, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, recognize the principles and mechanisms prescribed in these documents, while Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan consider the agreements to be inadequate for their national interests. But, in spite of this, both countries fulfill their obligations to allow the necessary volumes of water in summer for the three neighboring low-lying republics, and these agreements operate throughout the entire period of independence. Moreover, one should understand that the use of international law in the Central Asian region does not always help, because in international law there are no prohibitive or restrictive provisions and water relations are usually regulated through mutual agreements.
Obviously, despite all the existing “water” disagreements and hidden confrontation in this issue, the countries of the region are still trying to resolve the situation diplomatically and with a stake on cooperation, rather than on disunity. The International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea, created by the Central Asian countries in 1993, plays a special role in overcoming the consequences of the Aral Sea crisis. It works with the active participation and support of various UN, OSCE, UNESCO, world banking institutions, as well as donor governments. In 2017, the three-year presidency of IFAS was transferred to Turkmenistan, whose capital in August this year plans to host the heads of the founding states of the Aral rescue fund.
The previous summit of the leaders of the five countries of the region was held in Almaty in 2009. Last May, the Kyrgyz Republic withdrew from the alliance. According to Bishkek, IFAS does not take into account the needs of individual countries in the region. Analysts consider this step to be an instrument of political pressure on the part of Kyrgyzstan and hope for the resumption of Bishkek’s participation in the work of the fund within the framework, including the forthcoming summit in Ashgabat.
Water is not a commodity and a means of payment, it is too sensitive a “currency,” experts admit. Water should unite and not disconnect states, only in partnership and fair, reasonable use of the transboundary rivers of Central Asia lies the only correct measure that can lead the participants of this long-standing, sometimes tense process to a single denominator. Perhaps, it is necessary to introduce world rules of international water law taking into account the local specifics of the Central Asian region, experts say. In any case, it is necessary to act exclusively within the framework of international law, based on a number of examples of successful and mutually beneficial cooperation of various states, sometimes even warring among themselves, but still learned to share common water. /// nCa, 26 February 2018