Water resources management: West Africa and Central Asia

Kairat Sarybay and Danilo Türk. [Georgi Gotev]

A panel discussion at the Bled Strategic Forum highlighted the experience of West Africa in the common management of the water resources over a large area and progress in improving cooperation in an even larger Central Asia.

The discussion on Tuesday (5 September) was hosted by Danilo Türk, the former president of Slovenia and chairman of the Global High-Level Panel on Water and Peace, convened by 15 countries from all parts of the world.

Switzerland is particularly active in helping to promote cooperation in regional water management. Ambassador Pio Wennubst, head of the Global Cooperation Department at the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, said that because of their interest in world water issues, the Swiss are often asked: “What are you getting out of this?”

He said his country had no hidden agenda. The first reason for this commitment was that Switzerland was “the water tower of Europe”,  and the second, that Swiss history has shown that water could be something very divisive, but also unifying if issues with neighbours were solved.

The third reason, in his view, is the Swiss-led Blue Peace initiative, initially intended for the Middle East, and later expanded to other parts of the world, such as Central Asia. Wennubst said this is the reason why the Swiss authorities wished to transform the initiative into a world movement.

“Some may say – you are asking for the moon. But twenty years ago, when some of us started the movement of climate-change related issues, we never imagined that we would be able to change the way economies are functioning,” the Swiss official said.

Dr Sundeep Waslekar, president of the Strategic Foresight Group, India, said there was only one part of the world where solid financial stakes were created in shared transboundary water projects. And this was not in the developed world, not in the EU and not in North America, but in Western Africa.

“The most advanced transboundary cooperation exists in West Africa. Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Guinea, they commonly own the water assets. There is no national sovereignty. This doesn’t even exist in Europe: common ownership and common management of water assets,” he said.

Kabiné Komara, the former prime minister of Guinea, explained that all these countries had been colonised by the French. Guinea gained its independence in 1958 and the others two years later.

“At that time, we had visionary leaders. They understood that unless we cooperate, we cannot succeed,” he said. This is how the decision to share water was taken, by creating a unique organisation called OMVS (The Senegal River Basin Development Organisation).

OMVS is based on two pillars, Komara explained. The first is that no single country could claim property of water resources and the second that every investment in water resources is commonly shared and owned.

He said OMVS example was being followed by other countries in Africa.

Indeed, in 2014 serious tensions were mounting in northeastern Africa. Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia were confronted over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the border of Ethiopia and Sudan. Ethiopia had started building the dam, claiming its rights to use waters of the Nile within its territory. Egypt objected, fearing that the dam would obstruct the flow of the river to its fields.

A diplomatic effort succeeded in bringing together the presidents of Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan in Khartoum, and they decided to coordinate the construction of the dam in a way that would cause no harm and would allow an equitable outcome.

The case of Central Asia

Kairat Sarybay, the Vienna-based Ambassador of Kazakhstan to the Central European region, said that a few years ago one of Central Asia’s leaders had warned that if a neighbouring country would not stop the building of a dam, that would constitute a casus belli. The diplomat didn’t name the leader of this country.

“Thank God, these times are gone. Nowadays in Central Asia, we speak more about cooperation, about so-called integrated water management, but it’s not easy,” he added.

Indeed, in 2012 the Uzbek President Islam Karimov was particularly scathing of Tajikistan’s flagship Rogun dam. Water management has been a controversial issue in Central Asia for centuries. Karimov, an autocratic and unpredictable leader, died last year, which rapidly resulted in an improved climate in the region.

“In Kazakhstan, we have some 50% of fresh water resources coming through transboundary rivers. For us Russia, China, Central Asia are upstream countries […] so we are very dependent of our neighbours, and water policy was part of our multi-vector comprehensive approach in diplomacy,” the Kazakh diplomat said.

Upstream, the mountainous republics of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are among the poorest on the territory that was once the Soviet Union. Almost entirely dependent on imported power, both countries want to use their rivers to generate electricity.

Uzbekistan, Central Asia’s most populous country, depends on the rivers that rise in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to irrigate farmland. It has long been opposed to its neighbours’ plans to revive colossal Soviet-era projects to build dams upstream.

The Kazakh diplomat added that his country was “struggling for the proper water management” with all its neighbours and was getting “good progress”.

“We have established the mechanism of cooperation with Russia, China has accepted our proposal to discuss the transboundary water resources, but the most complicated issue is Central Asia, where we have two downstream countries and two upstream countries,” the diplomat said.

“I have to admit, in the former Soviet time the management was well organised from Moscow. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, unfortunately, we were not able to continue this well-organised mechanism,” he said.

“Despite this well-organised management, we lost the Aral Sea,” he later corrected himself.

The diversion of rivers to cultivate cotton in Soviet times was responsible for the depletion of the Aral Sea, which straddles the border of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.

The diplomat said that the five former Soviet republics (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan) were now five independent states with different approaches as to water resources.

“Some of them are saying water is subject to sale. Upstream countries say if you are selling us oil, we are in the position to sell you the water. And this is the most complicated issue.”

To deal with this complicated situation, he said Kazakhstan had initiated, under one umbrella, the Water Energy Consortium, as well as the Food Security Consortium.

However, the political situation on the ground was not conducive to huge progress, although all five agreed to establish an international fund to save the Aral Sea. Upstream countries refused to put on the agenda the issue of how to manage water resources to save the Aral Sea, Saribay explained.

With the new positive moment, which he seemed to link to the death of Karimov, the diplomat said the countries of Central Asia could agree that the joint integrated water management is for the benefit of all.

Green technologies can help by reducing water intensive industries and resource-saving measures in agriculture, Saribay said. He added that it was not by chance that World Bank was recruited for the assessments concerning the Rogun Dam, known as “the world’s tallest”.


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