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Water resources management is not merely an environmental security issue. Especially for developing countries like those in Central Asia, the number one priority for their government and citizens is undoubtedly – development. Therefore, such a prevention of water conflicts must be put under the framework that we are to ensure the development of these countries at the same time. Hence, we should also be aware of the economic structure of these countries.
One special feature of Central Asian economies is that they have a simple economic structure, and a lot of it depends on exports. This is not good news for a healthy and sustainable economy, because an export-driven GDP means that a country’s economy is highly dependent on the needs of another country, so if anything happens, one’s economy might collapse as well. Over 60% of Kazakhstan’s exports are hydrocarbon related, making it one of the top-ten oil-producing countries in the world. For Kyrgyzstan, nearly half of its exports are associated with gold, as seen in its largest trading partner being Switzerland. Thereafter following will be the textile industry (mainly cotton production), slightly above 20%, and agriculture products, occupying 15 per cent of the total exports.
Another upstream country, Tajikistan, also nearly mirrors Kyrgyzstan in its export proportions. Rich in mines especially in aluminium, around 60% of the country’s GDP is metal-associated, while cotton and agriculture are also in tow of it, as important pillars to the country’s economy. For Turkmenistan, the story repeats itself. Over 60% of the country’s exports are from natural gas and related products, and the cotton industry also occupies around 20% of total exports. Amongst the five countries, only Uzbekistan has a comparatively more balanced economy, but its major parts are also relied on the exports of cotton, petroleum, rare metal and agricultural products.
Apparently, we must take into account the economy structures of these countries whilst analysing the key problem to water conflicts. Firstly, cotton is an important industry in Central Asia, which intensifies the competition of water. Production of cotton is not costly, but it surely uses a huge amount of water during the process. It takes more than 20,000 litres of water to produce 1 kg of cotton; equivalent to a single T-shirt and a pair of jeans , while it also pollutes the water with chemicals, threatening the ecosystem and health of riparian residents. Therefore, for upstream countries such as Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, uncontrolled(/laissez-faire) cotton production will induce severe water pollution or the lack of water resources, whereas countries downstream will suffer without doubt. Secondly, all such simple economic structures of Central Asia countries are heavily water reliant. From the textile industry to mining, also processing agricultural products, hydrocarbon resources and metal, all such industries consume a huge amount of running water.
Also, for Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, they are rich in metal ores, but they do not have gas and oil. During the Soviet rule, they rely on their downstream neighbours Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan to provide them free energy sources. However, after independence, as to ensure energy security, both countries have built huge dams on the two major rivers, starting to invest on hydropower as an energy alternative. A deadlock thus appears. During summer, where Kazakh and Uzbek farmers need water the most for their agricultural products, the upstream Kyrgyz and Tajik government decides to save more water for their own use.
During winter, where more energy is required to generate heat, they will then release a huge amount of water for hydropower generation, which poses a huge threat to their downstream neighbours. Such a release of water during winter is not necessary for Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan anymore, thus it might endanger the lives of river dwellers as there is a huge risk of flood. The economic structures of countries are not complementary, thus it is a great risk of challenge to regional cooperation itself. As mentioned above, being developing countries, all the five Central Asia countries are looking for growth, while the previous Soviet order: upstream countries control the consumption and flow of water, while downstream countries deliver free energy sources to upstream. But this kind of approach does not meet the principle of being self-sufficient, while at the same time harming national security. The head of a government is supposed to maximize its country’s resources for his/her nationals, instead of undermining one’s development in assurance of others’ safety.
For oil-producing countries such as Kazakhstan, they refuse to simply give out their energy sources, but offers their former soviet republic neighbours to buy it at world price instead. However, the upstream countries are the poorer ones among the five, so how are they able to afford such expensive oil as competing with economic colossuses like China and the US? Therefore, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan retaliated by exerting less control on internal water use, clenching the throats of downstream countries, hoping to force them into submission.
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