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Transboundary Water Management in Central Asia Legal Framework to Strengthen Interstate Cooperation and Increase Regional Security

14 May 2016
Authors: Gubaidullina. M., Barbara Janusz-Pawletta
Category: Green economy

Barbara Janusz-Pawletta, Mara Gubaidullina


Legal framework for management of transboundary waters in Central Asia to strengthen interstate cooperation and increase regional security



Summary: The shortage of water resources and their inefficient use worldwide in the regional dimension of Central Asia exacerbates its problem with the weak transboundary water management. It results in the imbalance between needs and water consumption, economic and social instability, and violation of the environmental sustainability of the Central Asian countries, etc. Water resources allocation generates competition for the right to own it, and water scarcity exacerbates the contradictions between the riparian states.

Regional water security of today is threatened by risks, challenges and even threats for the development of the Central Asian region. Allocating shared water resources of transboundary character according to international law is one of the key factors of security in the region. Management of transboundary watercourses requires application of fundamental precepts of international water law like (1) principle of equitable and reasonable utilization of waters, (2) principle “no significant harm” and (3) principle of cooperation. A prerequisite for carrying them into effect is the states’ obligation to cooperate based especially on information exchange and consultations, as well as establishment of joint bodies. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and setting up of separate water systems in the Central Asian countries, the regional cooperation in management of transboundary rivers still requires improvement.


Keywords: international water law, management of transboundary watercourses, water dependent regional security in Central Asia





As a result of the collapse of the Soviet Union and appearance of the new five independent republics in Central Asia, many natural resources, including main watercourses, have acquired transboundary character. The uneven distribution of water resources in Central Asia resulted in an interdependence of the upstream and downstream countries. Tensions have also been caused by the diverging water related political economic interests of the riparian states and poor management of the resources on all levels: regional, basin, national and local. Deserts, semi-deserts, steppes, combined with the arid climate make the whole ecosystem of the region vulnerable.


One of the main current challenges in Central Asia is the targeted transition from the old principles of distribution of water resources set up in the Soviet period towards the system of integrated water resource management (IWRM). It is not a mere technical issue, but it requires an integrated approach to the use of water in such areas like agriculture, energy and industry. During Soviet times the system of water management was centralized in order to avoid conflicts over water allocation. It also included its own unique system of obligatory energy supplies to upstream countries (Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan) by downstream countries (Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan) in return for water services. Transition from ´centralism´ in water management led to imbalances in the distribution of water resources, which in turn immediately created political economical tensions among Central Asian countries.

Nowadays Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, due to the limited reserves of fossil fuels, are vitally interested in the exploitation of energy potential of the Central Asian transboundary water resources. Every year in winter time people in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan’s suffer from insufficient energy supply, what forces them to release water in winter to generate energy. In turn, downstream countries Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan rely on water storage in winter and its release in summer time to run their irrigated agriculture, the major source of their economic development. Both types of water usage require opposite operational regimes of hydro-technical facilities in winter season: (1) to release water for hydro-energy or (2) store water for irrigation purposes. Moreover, the population growth, industrial development, and increased recognition of the needs of ecosystems caused raise in water consumption, and exacerbated the need for a new regulation of water allocation system. All these challenges are well known on the local and internationallevel. They were highlighted during the International Decade for Action "Water for Life" - 2005-2015,which summed up in June in Dushanbe. The international forum brought together about 1,500 politicians and experts from 100 countries. The Dushanbe Water Declaration was adopted unanimously, however current water issues and controversies for central Asia tranboundary waters remained.


Nowadays, the need for rational use of water resources based on mutually beneficial interstate cooperation seems to be the key factor in sustainable development of the region and political stability and security in Central Asia.  It is obvious that in order to resolve existing tensions, a new interstate compromise is needed. It would equally recognize needs and interests of all Central Asian countries and lead to a unified regional management of water resources. This approach requires a consideration of economic and social interests of the countries and takes into account the ecological balance within water basins of Central Asia The level of interstate cooperation still seems underdeveloped due to the following reasons: (1) dominance of national interests reducing the potential of mutual attractions; (2) lack of an effective legal framework for management of shared water resources. International bilateral agreements on transboundary waters in Central Asia are used only for 157 watercourses from 263 water basins. They cover different areas of water management: from the studied 145 contracts and agreements 37% is related to water use; 39% - to hydropower; 9% - to flood control; 6% - to industrial water use; 4% - to navigation and pollution; and 1% - to fishin

The remaining issue from year to year is the problem of the inconsistency of hydropower and irrigation drainage modes of cross-border rivers. The situation with water issues is commonly called ‘dependent independence’. Where is the key to solving water problems in the region? The question and possible solutions lie in the political and legal frameworks and within the responsibilities of the Central Asian countries.


  1. Water-security based challenges to interstate cooperation in Central Asia Barbara Janusz-Pawletta, PhD., DAAD Scholar at Kazakh-German University (DKU) in Almaty; Prof. Dr. Mara Gubaidullina from Al-Farabi Kazakh National University, Almaty, Kazakhsta
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