Upstream Hydropower Development in the Syr Darya River Basin, Downstream Impacts, and Potential Opportunities

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Case Description
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Geolocation: 43° 55' 49.9403", 67° 4' 21.2274"
Total Population 2020,000,000 millionmillion
Total Area 250,000250,000 km²
96,525 mi²
Climate Descriptors Semi-arid/steppe (Köppen B-type), Dry-summer
Predominent Land Use Descriptors agricultural- cropland and pasture, rangeland, urban
Important Uses of Water Agriculture or Irrigation, Hydropower Generation, Other Ecological Services
Water Features: Aral Sea
Riparians: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Republic of Uzbekistan
Agreements: Agreement between the Republic of Kazakhstan, 1992 Agreement on Cooperation in the Area of Joint Management


The Central Asian country of Kyrgyzstan is seeking to expand its economy through the construction of an additional hydropower dam on the Syr Darya River upstream from the largest water using countries, potentially restricting their flows for irrigated agriculture. The Syr Darya originates in Kyrgyzstan and flows through Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan before flowing into what remains of the Aral Sea. Agriculture represents about 89 percent of total water withdrawals in the Syr Darya Basin, and the countries of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan account for over 80 of the water used in agriculture in the Basin. Planned construction of the Kambarata-1 dam by Kyrgyzstan, has led to threats of conflict by Uzbekistan. Here we find that the water management structure organized under the Soviet Union fails to meet the independent development goals of each nation. Irrigation methods used in the region are among the least water efficient forms of irrigation used today, causing land degradation and creating an artificial shortage of water that drives tensions over use of transboundary waters. Alternative water management models must be used to prevent conflict and allow for economic development in the region.

The key question addressed in this case is: What effective mechanisms can downstream riparians use to protect their water related interests/rights? Here we find that reducing demand in agriculture could improve water availability by making water a more flexible resource and reduce tensions over allocation, while at the same time allowing for economic development upstream. Additional potential for mutual gains solutions exists in co-investment of upstream infrastructure by downstream countries. This is a highly challenging water management situation that has seen multiple attempts at resolution fail. Further research is necessary to further develop the ideas put forth in this paper and to assess their likelihood of success.

Natural, Historic, Economic, Regional, and Political Framework

The Syr Darya River Basin The Syr Darya is formed by the confluence of the Naryn and Kara Darya Rivers, which originate in the Tian Shan Mountains of Kyrgyzstan. About 75 percent of the runoff forming the river comes from Kyrgyzstan. The Syr Darya flows through Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan before entering Kazakhstan and flowing into the northern part of what was once the Aral Sea. Its total length is about 2,800 kilometers. Its basin, inhabited by about 20 million people, is approximately 250,000 square kilometers. Annual flows range from 23.5-51 cubic kilometers. About 90 percent of the Naryn/Syr Darya’s mean annual flow is regulated by a series of storage reservoirs called the Naryn-Syr Darya Cascade [1]. Agriculture represents about 89 percent of total water withdrawals in the Syr Darya Basin [2]

Syr Darya Basin Country Profiles and Key Information

Kazakhstan has a population of about 16.2 million people. Agriculture is the largest water user, accounting for 66 percent total water withdrawals[3]. The country is dependent on inflows from transboundary rivers to meet most of its water needs. Long-term annual rainfall is only 250 mm per year, making Kazakh agriculture highly dependent on irrigation [3]. Kazakhstan’s GDP is US$ 196.4 billion [4]. The agricultural sector only accounts for about five percent of GDP but employs 28 percent of the economically active work force [5]. In poor, rural areas, agriculture can employ up to 60 percent of the work force [6].

The government of Kazakhstan has made achieving a high level of self-sufficiency in agricultural production a priority [7]. As such, structural reforms in the agricultural sector are necessary to meet these goals [3]. These reforms include increasing economic performance of the agricultural sector, meeting environmental requirements and introducing water-saving irrigation technologies. FAO [3] has recommended the restructuring of irrigated areas to shift production away from cotton and increase production of oilseeds and legumes, including perennial grasses. Kazakhstan is one of the top ten wheat producers in the world, and increasing productivity in rainfed areas, where most of the cereals are grown, is important [3] [7].

Kyrgyzstan is a mountainous country with a population of about 5.4 million. With an annual growth rate of 1 percent, its population is projected to reach 6.2 million people by 2025. Kyrgyzstan is one of the poorest countries in the region, with a GDP of about US$ 6.4 billion [8]. Agriculture accounts for about 21 percent of GDP and employs 20 percent of the total economically active population [3]. Kyrgyzstan has a net food deficit (annual consumption is far more that is produced) and is seeking to expand food production in its less mountainous regions. Due to its mountainous landscape, potential for expansion of agricultural land area is limited. Increasing agricultural production will largely require intensification on existing land through an increase in crop productivity, farmer training, and the introduction of advanced agriculture and irrigation techniques [3]. Being a poor, mountainous country with few natural resources, Kyrgyzstan views hydropower development as essential for economic development.

Tajikistan is a mountainous country (mountainous landscape covers 93 percent of the country) with a population of about 7 million. Its population growth rate has slowed to 1.1 percent in recent years after being over 3 percent during the 1980s. Its GDP of US$ 7.6 billion makes it one of the poorest countries in Central Asia [9]. Its per capita GDP is lower than that of Kyrgyzstan. Despite its mountainous landscape, agriculture accounts for about 21 percent of Tajikistan’s GDP. 27 percent of the economically active population is employed in the agricultural sector. The government of Tajikistan is working with international organizations and experts to reform its water resources management sector and to transfer agricultural production to a market economy. If this is successful, it has the potential to change cropping patterns and motivate farmers to adopt water-saving irrigation methods [3].

Opportunities for further hydropower production in Tajikistan along the Syr Darya are limited, as only 1 percent of the total flow of the Syr Darya is generated in Tajikistan [3] and most of the areas suitable for dam building in Tajikistan have already been dammed.

Uzbekistan has a population of about 27.8 million with an annual growth rate of 1 percent. Its GDP is US$ 51.2 billion [10]. Agriculture accounts for 20 percent of GDP and employs 21 percent of the economically active population. Average annual rainfall is 264 mm, and like Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan is highly reliant on transboundary rivers for its water resources. Cotton is the lead agricultural product in Uzbekistan, and its area and quantity produced are controlled by a government quota system, as are the purchase prices paid by the government to producers. Cotton-lint is the second leading export good (11 percent of export share) after energy resources (25 percent share of exports) [3].

Like the other countries of Central Asia, Uzbekistan’s irrigation network suffers from poor and degrading infrastructure and a water supply that is largely free of charge to farmers, who represent over 90% of Uzbekistan’s total water usage [11]. Cotton is a highly water intensive crop and is responsible for a significant portion of the water shortage in Uzbekistan. This water shortage is largely an artificial one, meaning the that the shortage is cause by poor irrigation management practices rather than a physical shortage from surface waters [11]. At its current population growth rate, the population of Uzbekistan could reach 32-35 million people within the next 10-15 years [12]. Increasing efficiency in irrigated agriculture is essential for food security, supporting rural livelihoods, and for continuing economic growth and social development.

Syr Darya River Basin Agreements Timeline

Transboundary management of the Syr Darya Basin can be divided up into five distinct periods, natural flow (up to 1974) and four separate river management periods [13] [2].

Until 1974, the Syr Darya was unregulated by dams, and the flow was determined entirely by seasonal and climatic variability. The mean flow was about 390 cubic meters per second, with high summer variability. In 1974, the Toktogul dam was commissioned in Kyrgyzstan. This dam has substantially changed flow patterns in the Syr Darya, and marks the beginning of the first river management period [13].

During this first river management period (1974-1990), the system was oriented primarily toward water use for irrigated agriculture, of primarily cotton, in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. The timing of winter and summer flow releases largely mirrored that of the natural runoff pattern. In the early 1980s, a water management organization was set up in Tashkent, Uzbekistan with the mandate to operate and maintain all water management structures on the Syr Darya that had a discharge of more than 10 cubic meters per second. Management and infrastructure were fully funded by the USSR, and the Central Asian riparians coordinated with Moscow to define an annual plan for how much water would be released for irrigation during the growing season (April to September) in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Hydropower electricity produced during that period went into the Central Asian Energy Pool to be shared by the upstream and downstream republics. In exchange for summer irrigation water, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan provided Kyrgyzstan with coal, oil, and natural gas to cover increased winter energy demand [13].

The second river management period (1991-1998) is defined by the independence of the Central Asian Republics from the former Soviet Union. International negotiations concerning transboundary water management along the Syr Darya began shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union. In February 1992, the five newly independent states in the Syr Darya basin set up the Interstate Commission for Water Coordination (ICWC) [13]. This agreement was intended to maintain the water allocation principles that were in place under the USSR until a new system could be established (Bernauer and Siegfried 2008; [2]. Key to this period was the fact that the most important river control structures, notably the Toktogul dam, were not put under control of the ICWC. In essence, they were de facto nationalized by the newly independent countries [13]. Thus, the second river management period is characterized as a period of unilateralism along the Syr Darya.

The third river management period (1998-2003) is marked by the signing of an agreement by the four riparian republics. Negotiations on this agreement were led by the Executive Committee of the Central Asian Economic Community and supported by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The 1998 agreement (Tajikistan signed in 1999) set a general framework for negotiations and a barter agreement structure on water-energy exchanges [13]. The framework agreement set in place a mechanism for annual negotiations on the water-energy exchanges, where Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan would agree to provide specific quantities of fossil fuels to Kyrgyzstan for the winter months in exchange for specific flows of water for irrigation in the growing season [13] [2]. In reality, these protocols were often weak, and since 2004, Uzbekistan has preferred to negotiate bilateral agreements with the other riparian countries [2].

The fourth river management period (2004 – present) is marked by the annual bilateral agreements initiated by Uzbekistan in 2004. These bilateral agreements add great uncertainty to overall river management. Uzbekistan may make agreements with one country along the Syr Darya that are at odds with agreements that other riparians may have with the same country. In an effort to overcome these challenges, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) developed a draft agreement on the Syr Darya in 2005, but it has yet to be finalized and adopted by the interested parties [2].

Issues and Stakeholders

Ensuring adequate flows downstream with upstream development

NSPD: Water Quantity, Governance
Stakeholder Types: Sovereign state/national/federal government, Local Government

Primary Issues in the Syr Darya Basin

The primary political problem since 1991 has concerned upstream-downstream antagonisms [13]. Upstream interests for expansion of hydropower infrastructure are diametrically opposed to downstream demands and interests for irrigation water.

Kyrgyzstan is looking to expand hydropower production for export and domestic use. It is a poor country and has difficulty buying fossil fuels at market prices, thus the Kyrgyz government is looking to hydropower as a means of economic development. While most of the water used in hydropower is non-consumptive, the generation of power during winter months for heating and export reduces reservoir levels, making less water available downstream during the growing season. Water releases upstream in winter also cause flooding in the lowland areas of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan due to ice in the river. Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and to a lesser extent Tajikistan, wish to increase agricultural production, increasing demand during the growing season (April to September), when reservoir levels in Kyrgyzstan are at their lowest. The principle problem to be solved is how to coordinate management of the Naryn/Syr Darya cascade of reservoirs, which are located entirely in Kyrgyzstan, so that the trade-offs can be minimized between downstream consumptive water use for irrigation in summer and non-consumptive uses for energy production in Kyrgyzstan in winter [13].

Stakeholders Based on the available literature, it appears that most of the stakeholder involvement in management of the Syr Darya has been mostly at the state leadership level and international donor level. Below is a list of current stakeholders and stakeholders whose roles should be expanded (note, this list is based on available literature and is not an exhaustive list):

Current: - The national governments of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan and their ministries of agriculture, water, and environment - Donor organizations and non-governmental organizations: Including, but not limited to, the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, USAID, United Nations Development Programme, United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, United Nations Economic Commission for Europe, the Global Water Partnership (GWP) for Central Asia and Caucasus - Regional water management organizations: International Fund for the Aral Sea (IFAS), the Instate Coordination Water Commission (ICWC) of Central Asia, and the Interstate Sustainable Development Commission (ISDC) - Universities: Multiple international and domestic universities have been involved with agriculture and development projects in the Syr Darya Basin

Recommended Stakeholders: - Farmer representation, most likely in the form of representatives from Water User Associations - Private sector representation: energy sector organizations, food exporting organizations, engineering firms - Representatives from the fishing industry: although most of the fish stocks have collapsed with the destruction of the Aral Sea, a recent project to restore the northern part of the Aral Sea has seen fish stock rebound and the very nascent reemergence of a fishing industry there and in the Syr Darya delta

- Populations faced with relocation from engineering projects

Analysis, Synthesis, and Insight

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Key Questions

Power and Politics: What effective mechanisms can downstream states/countries use to protect their water related interests/rights?

There is more flexibility in the management of the Syr Darya than the riparian countries seem to acknowledge. This flexibility allows for value creation in multiple areas of river management and allows for greater potential for mutual-gains. None of the Central Asian countries actually meet the definition of water scarcity, which is 1,000 m3 per capita [14]. Uzbekistan, the largest water user in the Syr Darya Basin (accounting for 52% of withdrawals) has almost double the per capita water availability as one of Europe’s largest agricultural producers, Spain [15]. The problem is instead inefficient agricultural water use and unsustainable agricultural practices.

The downstream countries, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, are currently responsible for 90% of water withdrawals from the Syr Darya [14]. This water is used primarily for agriculture, which means that there is room for mutual gains in the form of reducing water demand in downstream agriculture. Increasing the efficiency of agriculture is a win-win for Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan because the agricultural practices necessary to do so will not only make agriculture less water intensive, but also make it more sustainable.

Kazakhstan suffers from extensive degradation to its agricultural lands, with the primary source of this degradation caused by poor irrigation practices [7]. For example, only 19% of total agricultural lands are estimated to have no negative characteristics of land degradation [7]. With far more cotton production occurring in Uzbekistan, the situation there is far worse [16]. Water limitations stem from management decisions rather than physical shortage. This limited water and extensive land degradation necessitate sustainable intensification on existing agricultural lands. The motivation is for farmers to be able to increase their agricultural yields and to be able to continue to farm long into the future. A side benefit of this is that by using less water in agriculture, there is less water demanded to fight over.

The current dispute over the Kambarata-1 dam is really a dispute over how each state is choosing to develop. Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan are seeking to increase their irrigated agriculture in the Syr Darya Basin [14]. Rather than expanding irrigated area, they should look at solutions to sustainably intensify production on current agricultural land. Further expanding agricultural lands would add tension to an already difficult situation. Through introduction of relatively inexpensive water-wise irrigation methods, these countries could increase their yields per unit of water and potentially use less water overall while producing more crops.

The given value was not understood.

  1. ^ Bernauer, Thomas, and Tobias Siegfried. 2008. "Compliance and Performance in International Water Agreements: The Case of the Naryn/Syr Darya Basin." Global Governance 14: 479–501.
  2. ^ 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 UNECE. 2011. "Second Assessment of Transboundary Rivers, Lakes and Groundwaters". New York and Geneva: United Nations Economic Commission for Europe.
  3. ^ 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 3.6 3.7 3.8 3.9 FAO. 2013. "Irrigation in Central Asia in Figures: AQUASTAT Survey -2012". 39. Edited by Karen Frenken. Rome, Italy: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
  4. ^ Central Intelligence Agency. 2013a. "Kazakhstan." World Factbook.
  5. ^ World Bank. 2013. "Kazakhstan Overview"
  6. ^ Siegfried, T., T. Bernauer, R. Guiennet, S. Sellars, A. W. Robertson, J. Mankin, and P. Bauer-Gottwein. 2010. "Coping with International Water Conflict in Central Asia: Implications of Climate Change and Melting Ice in the Syr Darya Catchment". Oslo: International Peace Research Institute.
  7. ^ 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 OECD. 2013. OECD Review of Agricultural Policies: Kazakhstan 2013. OECD Publishing.
  8. ^ Central Intelligence Agency. 2013. "Kyrgyzstan." World Factbook."
  9. ^ Central Intelligence Agency 2013. "Tajikistan." World Factbook.
  10. ^ 2013d. "Uzbekistan." World Factbook.
  11. ^ 11.0 11.1 Abdullaev, Iskandar, Charlotte De Fraiture, Mark Giordano, Murat Yakubov, and Aziz Rasulov. 2009. "Agricultural Water Use and Trade in Uzbekistan: Situation and Potential Impacts of Market Liberalization." International Journal of Water Resources Development 25 (1) (March): 47–63.
  12. ^ Akmadov, E. 2008. "Uzbekistan Experiences Serious Water Shortages." Central Asia Caucus Institute Analyst, May 28.
  13. ^ 13.0 13.1 13.2 13.3 13.4 13.5 13.6 13.7 13.8 Bernauer, Thomas, and Tobias Siegfried. 2008. "Compliance and Performance in International Water Agreements: The Case of the Naryn/Syr Darya Basin." Global Governance 14: 479–501.
  14. ^ 14.0 14.1 14.2 Zakhirova, Leila. 2013. "The International Politics of Water Security in Central Asia." Europe-Asia Studies 65 (10) (December): 1994–2013.
  15. ^ Varis, O., and M.M. Rahaman. 2008. "The Aral Sea Keeps Drying Out but Is Central Asia Short of Water?" In Central Asian Waters, edited by M. M. Rahaman and O. Varis, 3–9. Helsinki: Water & Development Publications - Helsinki University of Technology.
  16. ^ Bekchanov, Maksud, John P.a. Lamers, and Christopher Martius. 2010. "Pros and Cons of Adopting Water-Wise Approaches in the Lower Reaches of the Amu Darya: A Socio-Economic View." Water 2 (2) (May 20): 200–216.

Facts about "Upstream Hydropower Development in the Syr Darya River Basin, Downstream Impacts, and Potential Opportunities"RDF feed
AgreementAgreement between the Republic of Kazakhstan + and 1992 Agreement on Cooperation in the Area of Joint Management +
Area250,000 km² (96,525 mi²) +
ClimateSemi-arid/steppe (Köppen B-type) + and Dry-summer +
Geolocation43° 55' 49.9403", 67° 4' 21.2274"Latitude: 43.9305389625
Longitude: 67.0725631714
IssueEnsuring adequate flows downstream with upstream development +
Key QuestionWhat effective mechanisms can downstream states/countries use to protect their water related interests/rights? +
Land Useagricultural- cropland and pasture +, rangeland + and urban +
NSPDWater Quantity + and Governance +
Population20,000,000 million +
RiparianKazakhstan +, Kyrgyzstan +, Tajikistan + and Republic of Uzbekistan +
Stakeholder TypeSovereign state/national/federal government + and Local Government +
Water FeatureAral Sea +
Water UseAgriculture or Irrigation +, Hydropower Generation + and Other Ecological Services +
Has subobjectThis property is a special property in this wiki.Upstream Hydropower Development in the Syr Darya River Basin, Downstream Impacts, and Potential Opportunities +