Global Europe Brief, powered by FACEBOOK: Central Asia’s complicated relationship with water

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In this week’s edition: Central Asia’s water woes, Belarus in crisis mode, and Ukraine military build-up.

Most of Central Asia has been experiencing an extreme drought this year, with record high temperatures impacting the region’s agricultural sector, driving the price of basic food items up.

In April, a dispute over irrigation water triggered a clash between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan over the border region of Kok-Tash in the Batken province. Tensions have been commonplace over the last 15 years as both sides claim ownership of a local water supply facility.

The current configuration of their joint border is the product of Soviet mapmakers drawing the dividing lines for Soviet republics, and crisscrossing roads and waterways.

After gaining independence, the countries of the Central Asian region began to dispute the ownership of a significant number of water and energy facilities, particularly in the Fergana Valley, just across the border territories of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.

During Soviet times, water access in Central Asia was centrally controlled by Moscow. The Soviet legacy, including dams and altered river flows to develop massive irrigation projects, have caused widespread desertification.

The Aral Sea, previously the fourth-largest lake in the world, has now all but dried up, primarily due to industrial and agricultural over-exploitation.

Experts are concerned about impact reaching far beyond the region itself. Kazakhstan’s Lake Balkhash could become the next Aral Sea, they warn, as a nearby river that flows from China into the lake, is being diverted to help irrigation projects in Chinese territory.

This, plus climate change, has led Central Asia to become at risk of climate-related conflict.

In the past, the ‘water wars’ between upstream Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan and downstream Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan have seen water become a catalyst for tensions as regional demands exceed accessible amounts.

It remains to be seen if the five Central Asian governments can find a way to cooperate in water conservation projects in the future.

A recent proposal by Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev on the creation of a special working group of Central Asian vice-ministers to discuss water issues and set up an International Water and Energy Consortium in Central Asia could be a start.

EU development ministers on Friday (19 November) discussed water in the EU’s external action, especially in relations with Central Asian countries.

It came a few days before an EU-Central Asia meeting in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, scheduled for 22 November, where EU’s chief diplomat Josep Borrell will meet with the foreign ministers from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, to discuss regional issues and EU support for the region.

“We strongly believe that water should be systematically embedded into the EU’s preventive, peace-building and peacekeeping interventions and it needs to be part of the relevant strategic partnerships and political dialogues,” Stanislav Raščan, Slovenia’s State Secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told EURACTIV.

Slovenia had pushed for water diplomacy as a development priority while at the helm of the EU Council.

“The EU’s engagement in various initiatives [in Central Asia] is showcasing the importance the EU attaches to water management, environment, sustainable development and regional cooperation in the region,” he added.

Asked about what should be done to better incorporate water distress as a factor in EU foreign policy-making, Raščan said initiatives should “better reflect water’s cross-cutting nature and relevance for human development, preservation of ecosystems and climate resilience”.

“Our activities on water need to be conflict-sensitive and risk-informed and our peace interventions need to be “water-proofed” by evidence-based, context-specific, and gender-responsive and human rights-based understanding of water’s role throughout the conflict cycle as well as in conflict prevention,” he added.

This is already reflected in the fact the EU’s methodology for conflict analysis for programming in fragile states, the Global Conflict Risk Index, and the structural risk assessments of the EU Early Warning System now includes environment-related indicators such as water stress, Raščan said.

Additionally, he said, it is necessary to mainstream climate and environmental aspects in CSDP missions’ mandates as laid out in the EU’s Climate Change and Defence Roadmap.

“Water and other environmental factors and natural resources should be included in the mandates of the EU Special Representatives agendas for the Horn of Africa, for the Sahel and for the Middle East along the same lines as they are on Central Asia“, Raščan added.

When it comes to general engagement with the region as such, EU officials believe there is overall progress in the countries of the region, with some, are opening up and all wishing to work more closely with the EU.

“Unlike their other partners, we are predictable, transparent and without hidden agenda and they know it,” an EU official said.

“The border issues are of course something that is worrying but we hope it will be possible to settle this in a proper way without any wider implications for regional stability,” he noted.


CRISIS MODE | The current situation on the border with Belarus should not be compared to Europe’s migration crisis from six years ago, since it is closer to military action, Finish foreign minister Pekka Haavisto told a group of journalists, including EURACTIV.

ABOUT SANCTIONS | Earlier this week, the EU has agreed on an expanded legal framework for anyone taking part in migrant trafficking, including airlines, travel agencies and officials, which would mean banning their leaders from travelling and freezing their assets in Europe.

This includes the threat to withdraw overflight and landing rights from airlines that are proven to be involved in trafficking migrants and tourism companies and others responsible for helping Belarus bring refugees to the borders of the EU.

Meant to be ready in the “coming days”, the process of drawing up the sanctions list is facing some opposition, notably from Germany who remains hesitant to sign off full sign-off for the inclusion of Belarusian airline Belavia, an EU diplomat confirmed to EURACTIV. Eastern Europeans are also not happy about the phone diplomacy between Berlin and Minsk, which they feel is “conducted over their head” another EU diplomat complained.

Beyond Belarus, EU foreign ministers also agreed to draw up more sanctions on shadowy Russian mercenary group Wagner over its involvement in a string of hotspots.


BELARUS-UKRAINE LINK | The EU and NATO expressed concern over Russia’s increased military presence in and around Ukraine as the escalating migration crisis on the EU’s borders with Belarus prompt transatlantic allies to take Kyiv’s warnings seriously.

After joint consultations between Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania presidents and a virtual meeting with Polish President Andrzej Duda, the three Baltic states said they would support Warsaw or each other if they were to invoke Article 4. According to some regional diplomats, though, the most recent international solidarity pledges, manage to calm the fears for the moment.

Estonia, however, wants to play it safe like its more southern neighbours and summoned 1,700 reserve soldiers for an unannounced exercise, including installing a razor-wire barrier along 40 km of its border with Russia, as the migration crisis in nearby Belarus intensifies.

STRATEGIC COMPASS | EU foreign and defence ministers welcomed the first blueprint of what the bloc’s future military strategy could look like, marking only the very start of the debate. Some member states, however, already signalled amendments are to come.

ARMS DEAL FLIRT | The Greek government reacted strongly after Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez agreed with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to enhance their countries’ collaboration in the defence industry. The Spanish-Turkish flirt has annoyed Athens.


US ENVOYS | The US Senate finally confirmed President Joe Biden’s pick for ambassador to NATO, Julianne Smith, by a voice vote this week, after Republican Senator Josh Hawley removed his objection to the nomination. Smith had served as deputy national security advisor to then-Vice President Biden after she had been director of European and NATO policy at the Pentagon.


LOSING PATIENCE? | Despite proclamations of “strong commitment” to Eastern partners, the EU’s reluctance to fast-track integration for its most ambitious next-door neighbours is causing increasing frustration as top diplomats met in Brussels earlier this week to chart the policy’s future.

HYDRO FIGHT | As Europe embarks on a rocky transition to renewable energy, Albania, where hydropower produces almost 100% of electricity, faces opposition from communities impacted by the building of hydroelectric dams.


GAS PRESSURES | The EU can and must force Gazprom to supply gas to the Russian-Ukrainian border, which European companies can then store in Ukraine’s gas storage facilities, making them part of the EU’s strategic gas reserves, a former Bulgarian ambassador to Russia and current gas market analysts told EURACTIV.

Germany’s energy regulator Bundesnetzagentur said earlier this week that the Ukrainian gas companies Naftogaz and GTSOU will be included in the ongoing German certification procedures of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline for which they have applied.

BORDER CLASHES | Clashes between Armenian and Azerbaijani troops left several soldiers dead in the worst fighting since last year’s war over the long-disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region.

DIPLOMATIC LEAK | France and Germany accused Russia on Thursday of breaking diplomatic protocol after Moscow published their confidential correspondence over Ukraine, the latest sign of deteriorating ties between Moscow and the West.

AFGHANISTAN WOES | The Afghan war and the current security situation have hampered the sustainable development of a vast region, including Central Asia, undermining its investment and economic prospects, Uzbekistan’s Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov told EURACTIV.

WTO REFORM | Kazakhstan, as a country chairing the WTO conference, will push for consensus on reform in the upcoming ministerial, Minister of Trade and Integration of Kazakhstan Bakhyt Sultanov told EURACTIV.



We’ll keep you updated on all relevant EU foreign affairs news, as Europe’s looks towards a busy end of the year. Here’s what’s coming up next week:

  • European Parliament plenary session, debate on Belarus crisis (Tue), Belarus’ opposition leader Tikhanovskaya address (Wed)
    | Mo-Thu, 22-25 November 2021 | Strasbourg, France
  • Annual EU-Central Asia ministerial meeting
    | Monday, 22 November 2021 | Dushanbe, Tajikistan
  • Belarus’ opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya visits, attends online conference on Belarus
    | Monday, 22 November 2021 | Vienna, Austria
  • IAEA chief Rafael Grossi expected to hold press conference after Tehran visit
    | Tuesday, 23 November 2021 | Vienna, Austria
  • Asia-Europe Summit (ASEM)
    | Thursday, 25 November 2021 | Phnom Penh, Cambodia / virtually
  • Supreme Court considers dissolution of rights group Memorial
    | Thursday, 25 November 2021 | Moscow, Russia

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