Amudarya and Syrdarya – The source of life for all Central Asian countries
The territories, located in basins of the great rivers of Central Asia – the Amudarya and Syrdarya – have been supplied by their waters since ancient times. These important arteries have shaped a common hydrological system, which ensures the interests of more than 50 million people living in the states of the region.
However, the adoption of detrimental decisions during the times of the Soviet Union has led to a gross interference into natural processes, the hasty use of water resources and has cardinally changed the watercourses of both Amudarya and Syrdarya. This has caused one of the gravest ecological catastrophes known to man – the drying up of the Aral Sea, the consequences of which are now being felt not only in the Trans-Aral territory and countries of Central Asia, but far beyond.
At present the water supply of the Amudarya and Syrdarya rivers does not exceed 70% of the long-term average normally seen. This complicates the opportunities to provide people with the necessary volumes of water for drinking and irrigation. 65% of the region’s population resides in the countryside and is engaged in the agricultural sector, which depends entirely on a reliable water supply.
In this regard, the use of water from transboundary rivers in Central Asia must take into consideration these interests. Otherwise, it can aggravate the difficult situation of water supply further downstream, accelerate the drying of the Aral Sea and make it practically impossible for tens of millions of people in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan to reside there.
For this purpose, there are a number of necessary international legal instruments currently in place. These include the UN Convention on the protection and use of transboundary watercourses and international lakes of September 18, 1992 and the Convention on the law of the non-navigational uses of international watercourses adopted by UN General Assembly on May 21, 1997, which obligate “to ensure that transboundary waters are used in a reasonable and equitable way, taking into particular account their transboundary character, in the case of activities which cause or are likely to cause transboundary impact.”
The principal position of the Republic of Uzbekistan on this issue, based on provisions of these Conventions, is that, before resuming the construction of Rogun (Tajikistan) and Kambarata (Kyrgyzstan) hydroelectric power stations (HPS), it is necessary to conduct a detailed international independent examination under the aegis of the UN or its authorized structure to assess these projects, as they were developed decades ago on the basis of outdated designs, engineering and technological solutions. An objective assessment of the possible consequences of their construction should be given, especially by drawing attention to:
-the damage they can inflict on the ecological balance of the region, which is now on the verge of a fragile equilibrium. Guarantees should be given that these installations will not have irremediable ecological consequences;
-their effect on the change in volume and regime of the watercourse of the Amudarya and Syrdarya, which is used by all states located along the flow of these rivers;
-their degree of protection from technogeneous menaces, especially the threat posed by powerful earthquakes. For example, this is particularly relevant to the Rogun HPS, whose construction site is located in a zone of high seismic activity on the line of a tectonic fault, where earthquakes of a sizeable magnitude frequently occur. Should such a dam break, we would inevitably witness a large-scale humanitarian disaster with the death of hundreds of thousands of people.
One of the leading Uzbek experts in geology, Dr Bakhodir Sitdikov, warns that the Rogun reservoir might provoke a strong earthquake. He says that, “Chinese and American scientists have new evidence, which indicates that the disastrous earthquake in Chinese Sichuan province in 2008 was triggered by a reservoir created four years ago. As a result of this more than 80 thousand people died or went missing. The earthquake was caused by the weight of 320 million tons of water that exerted pressure on the tectonic faults.”
This threat is heightened by the fact that such accidents become more likely on facilities like the Toktoghul (Kyrgyzstan) and Nurek (Tajikistan) HPS built more than 35 years ago, on which there have been no scheduled reconstruction works over the past 20 years. The scale of potential catastrophe was clearly demonstrated by the recent accident at the Sayano-Shushenskaya HPS in Russia.
The legitimacy of the position of Uzbekistan on this issue is supported by the United Nations. The Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, during his visit to Uzbekistan and other countries of Central Asia in early April 2010, witnessed the extent of the ecological disaster in the Trans-Aral territory and expressed the willingness of the organization and its specialized agencies to enlarge their assistance to countries of the region in solving this problem. Regarding the construction of large HPS, he stressed the importance of an independent and impartial assessment by the World Bank.
The World Bank, in a letter addressed to the Government of Uzbekistan, dated March 22, 2010, also underlined the importance of an objective and independent examination of the project of Rogun HPS. It reads, “Techno-economic, ecological and social assessments will be directed to conducting a thorough examination of technical viability, as well as environmental and social risks and benefits of the proposed project.” It emphasized that the World Bank’s involvement in this project “depends on the confirmation of the technical, economic, environmental and social feasibility and viability of the project, as well as on consultations being carried out properly.”
Along with this, Uzbekistan’s view is supported by the European Union, the Asian Development Bank, as well as Russia and Kazakhstan.
This reasoned position of Uzbekistan, together with active explanatory work with support of the international community, has resulted recently in greater understanding by Dushanbe and Bishkek of the concerns of their neighbouring countries and the necessity for an independent international examination of these HPS by the World Bank. However, it is vitally important that the issue of possible continuation of designing and construction of the Rogun and Kambarata HPS is considered only after the completion of compulsory, international, independent examination that gives proper responses to all questions.
The Uzbek view hopes that a reasonable approach will prevail in this issue, which is extremely important for the stable development of our region.