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.”