David Trilling The Tortkul Reservoir on the border between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan manages water for much of Kyrgyzstan's Batken Province.
David Trilling The meandering Pyanj River marks the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan.
David Trilling A camel herder looks for drinking water in the dusty plains that were the bottom of the Aral Sea only 20 or 30 years ago. Aral Sea basin, Kazakhstan.
David Trilling Bogen, Kazakhstan, was once a fishing village on the Aral Sea. Praised by Moscow for providing fish to Soviet troops during World War II, Bogen is now a dust bowl far from the sea.
David Trilling Girls wash laundry in water pouring out from a rusty pipe beneath a derelict oil derik. Mailuu-Suu river, Kyrgyzstan.
David Trilling Men fishing on a dilapidated pier in the Caspian Sea. Aktau, Kazakhstan.
David Trilling The Fergana Range of the Tian Shan Mountains in southern Kyrgyzstan, seen after takeoff from Osh, Kyrgyzstan.
David Trilling The view from Tajikistan's border, on the Pyanj River: Afghanistan's Wakhan Corridor.
David Trilling A bridge over the Naryn River, which becomes the Syr Darya before disappearing in the Uzbek desert, is a meeting place for young couples upstream in the town of Naryn, Kyrgyzstan.
David Trilling Naryn River, Kyrgyzstan: Fed by melting glaciers, scientists expect the Naryn River's volume to decrease dramatically by the end of the century. Yet government officials are counting on the river to feed the giant Kambar-Ata cascade of hydropower plants they hope to build downstream. The Naryn River eventually becomes the Syr Darya as it flows into Uzbekistan. Tashkent worries any dam on the river could reduce the water it needs for agriculture.
David Trilling A girl pumps water at a well in Murgab, Tajikistan, a parched town closer to cities in China than to Tajikistan's capital.
David Trilling A man fills up a bottle of drinking water from a river diverted away from a major roadtunnel. Too-Ashuu Pass, Kyrgyzstan.

Water Wars in Central Asia

The relations of the five former Soviet Republics in Central Asia—Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan—are, more often than not, defined by water. When they were still a part of the Soviet Union, the upstream republics—Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan—which have an abundance of water, would release some from their reservoirs in the spring and summer to generate electricity and nourish crops both on their own land and in the downstream republics, which would return the favor by providing gas and coal each winter.

But since the dissolution of the Soviet Union over a quarter century ago, that system has collapsed. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan now face constant blackouts and hope to build giant dams to provide for their energy needs. Kyrgyzstan completed its Kambarata-2 power station in 2010 and is building a second one, Kambarata-1, with the help of Russia. Although he doesn’t have the funds, Tajik President Emomali Rahmon often speaks zealously about his mission to build a 335-meter dam, Rogun, which has the potential to turn his impoverished statelet into a powerbroker. But there is one glaring issue: the region’s glaciers, the source of huge and once predictable water supplies, are melting at record rates. Every year, it loses about as much water as consumed by a country the size of Switzerland. And the dams stand to limit water supply even further for the downstream countries. This has set them on edge.

Along the disputed frontiers of the Fergana Valley, which is spread out over three of the countries, locals bicker with their neighbors over irrigation water. These small spats quickly escalate. In 2014, Kyrgyz and Tajik conscripts exchanged fire over a strategic sluice in Ak-Sai.

In Turkmenistan, the driest of the nations and where seedlings wither in the capital, the madcap despot, President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, is building a 3,500-square-kilometer lake in the desert. State media claim that the project, named the Golden Age Lake, has the blessings of “foreign scientists” who call the project a “wonderful example of the rational use of water resources.” Filling the lake would take 15 years, 2,600 kilometers of canals, and tons of water diverted from Uzbekistan.

In response, Uzbekistani President Islam Karimov warned in 2012 of a real war over water. “I won’t name specific countries,” he said in 2012, clearly alluding to his fellow Central Asian ‘stans, “but all of this could deteriorate to the point where not just serious confrontation, but even wars could be the result.”

DAVID TRILLING was The Economist’s Central Asia correspondent. He now works at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center. Follow him @dtrilling.

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