UN, other experts, present prescription to avoid dangerous water shortfall for 70 million Central Asians

November 06, 2019

Unless well-funded and coordinated joint efforts are stepped up, ongoing over-withdrawals compounded by climate change will cause dangerous water shortages for some 70 million people living in Central Asia's Aral Sea Basin, according to a new book co-authored by 57 experts from 14 countries and the United Nations.

With six countries competing for resources - Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan - the Basin is one of the world's most complex watersheds.

Its two major rivers, the Amu Darya and Syr Darya, discharge now only about 10% of what flowed into the Aral Sea until the 1960s, shrinking the sea by more than 80 percent -- "one of the world's most severe and emblematic environmental disasters."

The new book:Observations and recommendations:

  • Given the economic and population growth forecasts, water needs will rise sharply, necessitating greater cooperation and cost reductions.

  • Meteorological and hydrological monitoring in the Basin has declined since the 1990s and is insufficient to support informed water management.

  • Snow, glacier and permafrost monitoring is key to estimating water availability and predicting water-related hazards. Re-establishment of a well-distributed observational network, slowly emerging in the region, needs to accelerate. Regional water data sharing is also "sub-optimal."

  • Land and water degradation are among the major hindrances to sustainable development in the Basin. Land degradation alone is estimated to cost about US$3 billion in lost ecosystem services annually - about 1 percent of the combined GDP of the Basin's six countries.

  • Large upstream dam and hydropower developments continue to emerge in the region and, if managed collaboratively, will improve the reliability of water availability for agriculture, domestic use, electricity, and other benefits.

  • However, most of the multilateral and bilateral legal and political undertakings and agreements set up in the region to facilitate interstate cooperation after the Soviet Union dissolved require review and upgrading.

  • Some of the region's biggest water management challenges come from weak decision-making capacities of state organizations, and uncoordinated and competing interests of different stakeholders and public actors at all levels.

  • Establishing water user associations and other mechanisms essential for decentralized management of water and other resources is slow, inadequate, and must accelerate.

  • The legal frameworks must either be reformed or replaced by new forms of cooperation that successfully translate political will into effective, integrated regional water management.

  • Global political and economic change adds to pressure on Aral Sea Basin countries to end resource competition and open the way to closer cooperation and more effective pursuits of shared interests within broader Eurasian integration processes.

  • The region is characterized by uneven achievement of Sustainable Development Goal 6, 'Clean Water and Sanitation'. This is demonstrated not only by each individual country's progress but much more significantly by the contrast between urban and rural population within each state, most noticeably in the case of Afghanistan. Comments lead book editor Dr. Stefanos Xenarios of Nazarbaev University, Kazakhstan and co-editor-in-chief of the Central Asian Journal of Water Research (CAJWR): "This book assembles the views of nearly all major regional and international experts on the great challenges to be met in Aral Sea Basin. And almost half of the 57 authors are based in Central Asia, creating a unique blend of regional and international voices and expertise on the critical issues involved."

    "The Aral Sea Basin's many water issues must be addressed by all states jointly or none will be fully resolved," adds Dr. Xenarios. "The region already has national strategies developed with support from international organizations. But they have not yet been fully implemented. Water management in the Aral Sea Basin should link with general development strategies, including trade, tourism and transportation, enhancing solutions and cooperation"

    Adds contributing author and book co-editor Dr. Iskandar Abdullaev, Deputy Director, CAREC Institute, China: "The authors of this book sound powerful alarms about ongoing soil erosion, climate change, and other major environmental threats in the Basin. They also offer succinct policy recommendations to reverse the situation and protect the livelihoods of all those who strongly depend on a reliable regional freshwater system."

    "The Aral Sea Basin has been greatly affected by major geo-political changes in the last 30 years that, on one hand, increased water challenges and, on the other, created new opportunities to resolve them."

    "Reforming the water sector in the Basin goes beyond adopting new policies and initiatives, updating the legislative framework, and building new institutions," says another contributing author Dr. Vladimir Smakhtin, Director, UN University Institute for Water, Environment and Health, Canada.

    "Needed also is strong and continuous high-level political engagement in all Aral Sea Basin countries to better coordinate water management at national and transboundary levels, and technical and financial support of the relevant authorities and organizations".

    Dr. Smakhtin also serves as series editor of the Routledge publishers' Earthscan Series on Major River Basins of the World, to which the Aral Sea Basin Book is the latest addition. Previously published volumes examined the Ganges, Zambezi, Nile and Volta river basins, with a volume on South America's Parana River Basin scheduled for 2020.

    The Aral Sea Basin, a primer

    Two major rivers, the Amu Darya and Syr Darya, flow through six Central Asian countries before draining into the Aral Sea. The total basin area is over 1.7 million square kilometers - about half the size of India.

    The rivers' annual flow in the late 1950s was 115 cubic kilometers and the Aral Sea covered an area the size of Ireland, 68,000 square kilometers. With flows since diminished by 90 percent, the sea now covers just 17 percent of its original surface area.

    The causes: Massive developments, primarily in the second half of the 20th Century, and the expansion of intensive and wasteful irrigated farming.

    Until the conquest of Central Asia by Tsarist Russia, and the subsequent establishment of the Soviet Union, traditional farming practices were pursued in southern parts of the Basin, and nomadic pastoralism in the north. During the Soviet decades, land use in the Basin transformed fundamentally to commercial agriculture based on irrigated cotton monoculture.

    The collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of independent countries in Central Asia led to a change from centralized to inter-state transboundary water management and cross-border competition.

    Today the region's water systems are in transition, a combination of modern and old infrastructure and facilities.

    The Basin contains some of the largest, most complex water management infrastructure on Earth, including the world's longest canal, the Kara Kum in Turkmenistan, and the Rogun dam, under construction in Tajikistan and soon to be the world's highest reservoir.

    Over 80 reservoirs in the Basin each have individual capacity of over 10 million cubic meters. In the Basin, hydro facilities collectively generate 36,097 MWh of power; at full capacity, the dams hold almost 58 cubic km of water - about half of the total flow of both rivers in late 1950s.

    These developments reflect the needs of some of the world's biggest water users, with regional mean annual withdrawals of 2,200 cubic meters per capita, nearly 90 percent of it used for irrigation.

    About 70 million people rely on the Basin's water resources, a population greater than that of Thailand, France, or South Africa.

    Agriculture contributes from 10 to 45 percent of GDP in the six countries and employs 20 to 50 percent of the rural population.

    The Aral Sea Basin has a naturally dry climate and is especially vulnerable to climate change. Summer runoff depends mostly on vast glaciers in surrounding mountain ranges.

    And the rising needs of users, especially urban and agricultural, has driven a recent increase in groundwater withdrawals.
    Aral Sea Basin: Water for Sustainable Development in Central Asia

    57 authors from 14 countries: Canada, China, Finland, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Netherlands, Switzerland, Tajikistan, UK, USA, Uzbekistan

    Iskandar Abdullaev, Deputy Director, CAREC Institute, Urumchi, China

    Mohamed Ahmed, Assistant Professor at Texas A&M University, Corpus Christi, Texas, USA

    Aigul Akylbekova, Academic Secretary, Ahmedsafin Institute of Hydrogeology and Environmental Geoscience, Almaty, Kazakhstan

    Iroda Amirova, doctoral researcher, Leibniz Institute of Agricultural Development in Transition Economies (IAMO), Halle (Saale), Germany

    Jamal Annagylyjova, Program Officer, Secretariat of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification

    Oyture Anarbekov, water resources management specialist and researcher, IWMI Central Asia Office, Tashkent, Uzbekistan

    Dagmar Balla, Senior Scientist, Leibniz Centre for Agricultural Landscape Research (ZALF e.V.), Müncheberg, Germany

    Martina Barandun, glaciologist and Senior Researcher, Department of Geosciences, University of Fribourg, Switzerland

    Aziza Baubekova, Teaching Fellow in Biology, Center for Preparatory Studies, Nazarbayev University, Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan

    Jelle Beekma, water resources specialist and consultant with more than 30 years of experience

    Maksud Bekchanov, Senior Researcher in Agricultural Economy, Centre for Development Research (ZEF), Bonn University, Germany

    Tobias Bolch, lecturer and leader of the Mountain Cryosphere research group, School of Geography and Sustainable Development, University of St. Andrews, Scotland

    Manon Cassara, water resources management consultant,

    Dietrich Darr, Professor of Agribusiness, Rhine-Waal University of Applied Sciences, Kleve, Germany

    Kakhramon Djumaboev, Researcher, International Water Management Institute (IWMI)

    Andrei Dörre, Visiting Professor, Department of Development Studies, University of Vienna, Austria, and affiliated with the Centre for Development Studies of the Freie Universitaet Berlin (Germany)

    Joel Fiddes, geoscientist working across academic institutions, international organisations, multilateral donors and UN bodies, Switzerland

    Abror Gafurov, hydrologist with a focus on water cycles in Central Asia

    Zafar Gafurov, International Water Management Institute (IWMI), Central Asia office, Tashkent

    Sara Giska, Fulbright Student Researcher at the UNESCO Chair for Water Management in Central Asia, Kazakh-German University (DKU), Almaty, Kazakhstan

    Barbara Janusz-Pawletta, UNESCO Chairholder for water management in Central Asia, Vice-Rector on International Cooperation, Kazakh-German University

    Ali Torabi Haghighi, Water, Energy and Environmental Research unit, University of Oulu, Finland

    Ahmad Hamidov, Post-Doctoral Researcher, Leibniz Centre for Agricultural Landscape Research (ZALF), Müncheberg, Germany

    Bunyod Holmatov, Ph.D. candidate, University of Twente, Netherlands

    Martin Hoelzle, Professor of Physical Geography, University of Fribourg, Switzerland

    Saghit Ibatullin, Professor, Kazakh Academy of Agricultural Sciences, and Director, International Teaching Center for Dam Safety in Taraz, Kazakhstan

    Anvar Kamolidinov, consultant and Deputy Project Manager, EU Zarafshan River Basin Project

    Ulan Kasymov, Post-Doctoral Researcher, Resource Economics Group, Humboldt University, Berlin, Germany

    Jusipbek Kazbekov, Water Management Specialist, CAREC, Uzbekistan

    Bjørn Kløve, Professor, University of Oulu, Finland

    Marton Krasznai, Associate Professor and Scientific Director, Center for Central Asia Research, Corvinus University, Budapest

    Anastasia Kvasha, Project Manager and Research Assistant, Environmental Systems Laboratory, Central European University (CEU), Hungary

    Murodbek Laldjebaev, Assistant Professor in Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Central Asia's (UCA) School of Arts and Sciences, and a Research Fellow at the UCA's Mountain Societies Research Institute

    Shreedhar Maskey, Associate Professor of Hydrology and Water Resources, IHE Delft Institute for Water Education, Netherlands

    Hamid Mehmood, Senior Researcher, United Nations University Institute for Water Environment and Health (UNU-INWEH), Hamilton, Ontario, Canada

    Roman Mendelevitch, Research Associate, Öko-Institut eV

    Alisher Mirzabaev, Senior Researcher, Center for Development Research (ZEF), University of Bonn, Germany

    Veruska Muccione, senior researcher, Department of Geography, University of Zurich, Switzerland

    Makhliyo Murzaeva, researcher, EU-GIZ

    Asel Murzakulova, Senior Research Fellow, Mountain Societies Research Institute, University of Central Asia (UCA), Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

    Serik Orazgaliyev, Assistant Professor, Graduate School of Public Policy, Nazarbayev University, Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan

    Manzoor Qadir, Assistant Director, United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment and Health (UNU-INWEH), Hamilton, Ontario, Canada

    Jay Sagin, Assistant Professor, Nazarbayev University, Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan

    Tomas Saks, Researcher, University of Fribourg, Switzerland

    Jenniver Sehring, Senior Lecturer, IHE Delft

    Maria Shahgedanova, Professor, University of Reading, UK

    Dietrich Schmidt-Vogt, Honorary Professor, Faculty of Environment and Natural Resources, Freiburg University, Germany

    Frank Schrader, Swiss Development Corporation (SDC), Tajikistan

    Vladimir Smakhtin, Director, United Nations University Institute for Water Environment and Health (UNU-INWEH), Hamilton, Ontario, Canada

    Thijs Stoffelen, Ph.D. candidate, Wageningen University, Netherlands

    Lucia de Strasser, Consultant, Water Convention of the UN Economic Commission for Europe

    Janez Susnik, Senior Lecturer, IHE Delft Institute for Water Education, Netherlands

    Stella Tsani, visiting faculty, Athens University of Economics and Business

    Kai Wegerich, interdisciplinary water resources researcher

    Stefanos Xenarios, Environmental Economist, Co-Editor-in-Chief, Central Asian Journal of Water Research (CAJWR) and committee member, International Water Association's Specialist Group on Statistics and Economics

    Dinara R. Ziganshina, Deputy Director, Scientific Information Centre, Interstate Commission for Water Coordination in Central Asia, Tashkent, Uzbekistan

    Previous books in the Earthscan Series on Major River Basins of the World

    Each book in the series brings together various national and international stakeholders to examine major river basin issues in the context of the UN Sustainable Development Goals

    The Zambezi River Basin: Water and sustainable development

    The Zambezi is Africa's fourth longest river, crossing or bordering Zambia, Angola, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Mozambique. The river basin is widely recognised as one of the most important basins in southern Africa and is the focus of contested development, including water for hydropower and for agriculture and the environment. This book provides a thorough review of water and sustainable development in the Zambezi, in order to identify critical issues and propose constructive ways forward. http://bit.ly/UNUZambezi

    The Ganges River Basin: Status and Challenges in Water, Environment and Livelihoods

    The Ganges is one of the most complex yet fascinating river systems in the world. The basin is characterized by a high degree of heterogeneity from climatic, hydrological, geomorphological, cultural, environmental and socio-economic perspectives. More than 500 million people are directly or indirectly dependent upon the Ganges River Basin, which spans China, Nepal, India and Bangladesh. While there are many books covering one aspect of the Ganges, ranging from hydrology to cultural significance, this book is unique in presenting a comprehensive inter-disciplinary overview of the key issues and challenges facing the region. http://bit.ly/UNUGanges

    The Volta River Basin: Water for Food, Economic Growth and Environment

    The Volta is an important transboundary basin in West Africa that covers approximately 410,000 square kilometres across six countries: Benin, Burkina Faso, Côte d'Ivoire, Ghana, Mali and Togo. Its natural resources sustain the livelihoods of its population and contribute to economic development. This book provides a comprehensive, interdisciplinary review and assessment of the issues and challenges faced. http://bit.ly/UNUVolta

    The Nile River Basin: Water, Agriculture, Governance and Livelihoods

    The Nile provides freshwater not only for domestic and industrial use, but also for irrigated agriculture, hydropower dams and the vast fisheries resource of the lakes of Central Africa. The Nile River Basin covers the whole Nile Basin and is based on the results of three major research projects supported by the Challenge Program on Water and Food (CPWF). It provides unique and up-to-date insights on agriculture, water resources, governance, poverty, productivity, upstream-downstream linkages, innovations, future plans and their implications. http://bit.ly/2JgOAWe


    The UNU Institute for Water, Environment and Health is a member of the United Nations University family of organizations. It is the UN Think Tank on Water created by the UNU Governing Council in 1996. Its mission is to help resolve pressing water challenges of concern to the UN, its Member States and their people, through knowledge- based synthesis of existing bodies of scientific discovery; cutting edge targeted research that identifies emerging policy issues; application of on-the-ground scalable solutions based on credible research; and relevant and targeted public outreach.

    UNU-INWEH is supported by the Government of Canada through Global Affairs Canada and hosted by McMaster University. http://bit.ly/2QiV3lL

    United Nations University - Institute for Water, Environment and Health

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