The water crisis dividing Kyrgyzstan

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Kyrgyzstan is suffering its worst drought in 23 years.

This country dominated by the Tian Shan mountains is often described as the water tower of Central Asia. But ‘blue gold’ has become a sensitive issue in the country and Kyrgyzstan has been named as a potential hotspot in future water wars.

Chuy Valley, which surrounds the capital, Bishkek, is the country’s main agricultural region. Its farmers are expecting to see a 20 to 25 per cent fall in the wheat harvest in 2014 alone.

The root of the problem is the 30 to 40 per cent fall in the average flow of its rivers since the month of January.

Responding to discontent among farmers, who have been struggling with an irrigation deficit affecting over 40 per cent of the land for more than a decade, the authorities point the finger to climate change and drought.

The water resource management department in Alamoudin Valley (one of the valleys overlooking Bishkek), has attributed the problem to the low levels of rainfall over several consecutive years and the retreat of the glaciers in the Tian Shan mountains.

The glaciers have indeed shrunk by 15 per cent over thirty years, and the trend is continuing. Given that over 90 per cent of the water in the country’s rivers and lakes comes from the annual melt from these glaciers, there is no doubt that their retreat is contributing to the water shortages being suffered this year.

But drought, it would appear, is not the only cause.

Anatoliy, who lives in the village of Komsomolskoye, a 15-minute car journey from Bishkek, is the head of a fishing association in the region and often visits the reservoirs around the capital. He acknowledges having listened to the authorities’ explanations but argues that “such levels could not be due to drought alone, because there has been some rain.”

Kyrgyzstan’s irrigation system, one of the oldest in the world, dates back to the Soviet era. It has suffered substantial damage and deterioration over the years since the country became independ-ent in 1991.

The kolkhozes, or collective farms, that once managed these complex systems have been divided into small privately-owned farms, which do not have the skills required to manage irrigation.

A lack of adequate training and controls has led these new farmers to go by the principle that ‘you can never water enough’. The result has been disastrous: soil degradation, the waste of wa-ter, and the destruction of the collective irrigation systems, which have become obsolete and un-usable.

The issue of irrigation and the distribution of water resources is at the very top of the agenda for international organisations in Central Asia.

In April, the World Bank announced that almost US$38 million would be made available for the rehabilitation of the Soviet irrigation system in Kyrgyzstan, to assist the Kyrgyz government in its efforts to modernise the irrigation infrastructure.

 

Competing for water

Alexander, a 24-year-old man working on a livestock farm in the same village as Anatoliy, often talks to the farmers when buying fodder for the animals.

He confides that some farmers water their land too much, without any regard for their neighbours’ needs.

“The time needed for watering is three hours. Some farmers activate the system at midnight and leave it to run, unsupervised, throughout the night. Then they switch it off at around eight o’clock in the morning.

“If asked why they over-water, they don’t understand the question and get annoyed. When they’re told that they’re not leaving anything for the others, they say it’s not their problem.”

According to Alexander, this is creating tensions between the farmers.

“It’s a well-known problem during the irrigation period,” confirms a friend of Anatoliy, a member of the fishing association, on a visit to Komsomolskoye.

He explains that the problem is the refusal to respect the irrigation rules established by the municipal authorities. “The first in line have enough water, but it’s not always the case for the last.” It’s a question of ‘first come, first served’.

Anatoliy adds: “Not far from here, in the village of Frounze, one farmer is monopolising the water. He takes practically all the water supply and distributes it himself. So he buys 90 per cent for his farm and leaves the rest to the others. The fields are private now. Nothing belongs to the state. Everyone has to survive as best they can.”

The UN points to the competition for water resources between farmers, municipal authorities and industry as one of the main reasons for the scarcity of water resources in Kyrgyzstan.

Farmers are not the only ones left with insufficient water. Bishkek is also struggling to water its parks, avenues and green spaces. This year, the town has not received the volume of water need-ed, which is having a serious effect on the trees and is leading the leaves to fall prematurely.

According to the Bishkek city council, Zelenstroy, the municipal company supplying it with wa-ter, has only received 57 per cent of the water ordered for the summer period: “The water situa-tion continues to be unstable.” Zelenstroy has already raised the issue with numerous authorities, including the ministry in charge.

To try and make up for the shortfall, a dozen or so water tankers hose the city at night.

On a wider scale, the municipal authorities are therefore competing for water with the former collective farms, echoing the cacophony of Kyrgyzstan’s water management policy.

At the beginning of July, at the height of the drought, the Deputy Prime Minister’s announce-ment regarding the creation of a centre to organise irrigation in the Chuy region appeared like a symbol of a barely audible crisis policy giving rise to a succession of meetings and official an-nouncements in the media.

The Mayor of Bishkek, Kubanichbek Kulmatov, had announced, on 25 June, that “the water war between the capital and the Chuy region could begin”.