BISHKEK, February 11 (TCA) — On February 13 and 14 Bishkek is hosting a Ministerial conference on water and environment. The conference was organized by the European Union and is co-chaired by the Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs of Italy Marta Dassu. Besides Kyrgyzstan that is hosting the conference, there are participating delegations from Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
The conference is supposed to confirm the European Union engagement in the region in a sector that has an absolute priority due to its destabilizing potential that may affect security of Central Asia. On the other side, the conference aims to achieve the implementation of basic criteria that drive the Kyoto protocol and the introduction of clean technologies aimed at energy saving and efficiency. With the above in mind, a regulated exploitation of water resources is extremely important and is part of the European Union’s Water Initiative.
This conference is the fourth in a program where Central Asia and the EU are developing a dialogue of cooperation on environment governance, climate change and water management, and is held in the framework of the platform for environment and water cooperation of the EU-Central Asia strategy. Irrespective of the ongoing debate and the outcome of the conference the fact remains that there is a basic disagreement between Central Asia countries over the utilization of water, construction of hydroelectric power stations and dams, and regulation of the region’s energy supply.
The problem involves agriculture development, land degradation, irrigation, forestry, pollution, and trans-boundary river management. But above all it concerns security since water conflicts here in Central Asia are an element of destabilization that may reach extreme consequences.
If cooperation seems to be the logical answer to such conflicts, economic and political interests present a completely different scenario and the European Union efforts to find an integrated solution to the problem may not achieve the expected results irrespective of the various proposals to facilitate financing, support infrastructure projects, and enhance governance.
In Central Asia there is a kind of undeclared war based on water related problems and geographical borders that feed a tension that is escalating from time to time, straining the relations between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, but also between Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.
Large hydroelectric power stations are now under construction in Kyrgyzstan (Kambarata) and Tajikistan (Rogun), and Uzbekistan is alarmed and extremely concerned about a negative impact of these projects on its agriculture.
On the other side, both Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan consider the projects vital for their economic development and achievement of an export potential that may bring in much needed cash to these countries.
Both countries, which are the poorest in Central Asia, aim at utilizing their natural resources in order to facilitate their economic development. In a situation where the parties confront each other with arguments and accusations, only Russia and China can play a much more important role than that of the EU, since is their financing and technology that at the end may decide if the two projects will be completed or not. This, however, may cause a serious political problem that may drive Uzbekistan toward extreme actions. The solution is surely not in a continuous confrontation, and a negotiated solution with the cooperation of the EU is the best way to proceed.
The high-level conference that today sees the EU and Central Asia debating the problem will never achieve a conclusive result unless Russia and China will seat at the same table. During the past two decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union and later with the Afghan war and the presence of the United States in Central Asia, Russia’s influence in this region has certainly decreased, but Russia is determined to re-gain its leadership role if not on the economic then on political and security fronts. It is also clear that Russia, due to its culture, mentality and language, will be keeping strong links with post-Soviet Central Asia.
This is also true due to security problems, drug trafficking and radical Islamization threat the region may face after 2014 when NATO and US forces will leave Afghanistan. At that time only Russia will be able to guarantee a certain level of military security, and its recent military agreements with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan only confirm such expectations.
It is security and economic development matched by political stability, irrespective of the regime in place, that will determine the solution to the problems; and in this aspect the role of China with its large financial resources should be taken into consideration. China is not only a potential investor in large infrastructure projects such as roads, pipelines, and hydroelectric power stations, but above all it is a large buyer of energy and other resources. China is interested in maintaining stability and in this context it will be able to contribute in a considerable way to the cooling down of tensions and finding a reasonable solution where instead of confrontation a new form of partnership is proposed between the Central Asian countries.
It is time for the different promoters of this high-level conference between the EU and Central Asia to realize that the solution to the Central Asia environment and water problem is not in a bilateral approach but in a wider multilateral consideration that also brings to the negotiating table such important players as Russia and China. All this is required if we really want to move from plans and proposals to implementation and long-term solutions.