On January 27, 2021 the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung (KAS) and the EastWest Institute (EWI) held the second iteration of their exclusive Joint Working Group (JWG) series—launched last year—on EU’s water diplomacy with respect to the three most water-stressed regions in the world: the Himalayas, Central Asia and the Euphrates-Tigris. The second convening of the JWG was devoted to Central Asia, a region known for its broad and capacious transboundary river systems shared by the upstream countries, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, and the downstream countries, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan.
The session brought together water experts from Central Asia along with representatives of the EU, GIZ, academia and international think tanks to jointly assess the current challenges which impede effective implementation of equitable allocation of water resources in Central Asia. The discussion commenced with an overview of the transboundary river networks in Central Asia—spotlight on the Aral Sea basin that is fed by two rivers, the Amu Darya and Syr Darya. In the 1960s, the Soviet government decided to divert the river waters to meet the irrigation demands for agriculture. The experts noted that this contributed to what came to be known as the “Aral Sea Catastrophe”—a crisis driven by the multifold effects of rising population, rapid irrigation and deteriorating water infrastructures which ultimately led to the desiccation of the Aral Sea.
Within the overview, the experts drew attention to the point that even though Central Asia’s water challenges started under Soviet rule, the water crisis further intensified in the post-Soviet set up as independent countries in the region were left overwhelmed with technical, managerial and cross-border issues on water governance. In this context, the experts emphasized that most water issues in the region are not rooted in the resource itself but often in the political situations surrounding them. Hence, a lot of shared water challenges are in fact a result of an overall lack of good governance in the region.
Central Asia’s water diplomacy and Institutional Achievements
Albeit the existing concerns, there have been notable positive developments in the region over the past decades. In fact, in 1992 the ministers of the five dominant Central Asian countries established the Interstate Commission for Water Coordination in Central Asia (ICWC) with various executive bodies. The ICWC facilitated the introduction of integrated water resources management for the benefit of the entire region—a step in the right direction.
Moreover, one discussant pointed out that the ability of Central Asian countries to come together in times of crisis should not be underestimated. There are strong informal foundations in form of “brotherhoods” and technical expert networks among riparian countries which could be further strengthened. Such initiatives might contribute to an enhanced cooperation on shared waters without compromising or weakening existing formal institutions like the ICWC and IFAS.
Challenges and the way forward
Nevertheless, a range of challenges remain in Central Asia’s water diplomacy. For example, research gaps and lack of efficient coordination still prevent the region’s water commissions from reaching their full potential. Also, there is an increasing risk of bilateralism in the region’s water diplomacy vis-à-vis the use of new bilateral institutions for forum shopping, especially among upstream states circumventing stricter rules.
On Afghanistan, the experts emphasized the need for integrating the country into the formal conversations on transboundary water governance in Central Asia, particularly against the backdrop of the aforementioned trend of bilateralism. So far Afghanistan, a key upstream country, where vast parts of the population depend on water-intensive agriculture, is unfortunately yet to be a part of the formal Central Asian water platforms. It was highlighted that the countries must find a balance between promoting cooperation at basin and sub-basin level while maintaining formal standards and protocols.
Finally, reflecting on the EU’s role in the region, the experts identified various initiatives that the EU has taken in the past, some of which are ongoing, that have played an important role in broadening the conversation on transboundary water issues (e.g. the EU–CA Platform on Environment and Water and Germany’s Green Central Asia Initiative). However, there is still scope for greater involvement by the EU which can be achieved via promotion of advanced research and innovation on water management needs; improved coordination among donors to synchronize project planning; and stronger consistency of the EU’s engagement, in particular from the vantage of Afghanistan where the Union has regressed its capacity-development support for transboundary water management. Participants agreed that the EU has the required potential to further its position as an important third-party solicitor and empower integrative approaches towards water research and governance on various scales.
VIRTUAL JOINT WORKING GROUP MEETING SERIES IN FOCUS: CENTRAL ASIA
Set against the backdrop of transboundary water resource politics, the EastWest Institute (EWI) and the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung’s (KAS) upcoming Joint Working Group (JWG) meeting - second iteration in a series - aims to incorporate diverse perspectives and maximize opportunities for greater understanding of the past, present and future of hydrodiplomacy in Central Asia. The JWG will assess the successes and failures of transboundary cooperation initiatives and existing institutional mechanisms, reflect upon the position of Afghanistan in regional hydrodiplomacy, and address how growing water scarcity and power asymmetries may compromise future water cooperation ambitions in the region. The discussion will also invite a strategic reflection of EU water diplomacy and its engagement in Central Asia. The JWG participants will together engender an insight into key areas where the EU can play a pivotal role in enabling an effective and cohesive system of transboundary water resource governance in the region.
PROGRAMME AGENDA - January 27, 2021 @ 2 PM CET
14:00 - 14:05 Introductions and Opening Remarks
Louis Mourier, Programme Manager, Multinational Development Policy Dialogue, KAS
Farwa Aamer, Director, South Asia Program, EWI
14:05 - 14:15 An Overview of the Transboundary Rivers and Institutions in Centra Asia
Dr. Jenniver Sehring, Senior Lecturer in Water Governance and Diplomacy, IHE Delft
Dr. Dinara Ziganshina, Deputy Director, Scientific Information Center of Interstate Сommission for Water Coordination in Сentral Asia
14:15 - 14:25 Reactions by Participants
14:25 - 15:20 Open Discussion
15:20 - 15:30 Conclusions and Closing Remarks
● Dr. Jenniver Sehring, Senior Lecturer in Water Governance and Diplomacy, IHE Delft
● Dr. Dinara Ziganshina, Deputy Director, Scientific Information Center of Interstate Сommission for Water Coordination in Сentral Asia
● Ms. Carmen Marques-Ruiz, Policy Coordinator for Water/Environment, European External Action Service
● Mr. Arnaud de Vanssay, Team Leader Water, european Commission
● Ms. Tanja Miskova, Water Diplomacy Policy Officer, Slovenian Ministry of Foreign Affairs
● Ms. Ana Novak, Development Policy Officer, Permanent Representation of Slovenia to the EU
● Ms. Ales Bizjak, Water Policy Officer, Slovenian Ministry of Environment and Spatial Planning
● Ms. Martina Schmidt, Political Advisor to the EU's Special Representative to Central Asia, European External Action Service
● Dr. Caroline Milow, Progamme Manager, Green Central Asia, GIZ
● Dr. Susanne Schmeier, Associate Professor in Water Law and Diplomacy, IHE Delft
● Mr. Denis Schrey, Director, Multinational Development Policy Dialogue, Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung
● Ms. Farwa Aamer, Director, South Asia Program, EastWest Institute
● Mr. Louis Mourier, Programme Manager, Multinational Development Policy Dialogue, Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung
● Mr. Brian Eyler, Program Director, Energy, Water, Sustainability Program, The Stimson Center
● Ms. Courtney Weatherby, Research Analyst, Energy, Water, & Sustainability Program, The Stimson Center
Click here to read the event report on the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung website.