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Experts present prescription to avoid dangerous water shortfall for 70 million Central Asians

  • Experts present prescription to avoid dangerous water shortfall for 70 million Central Asians
  • Urgent need to replace competition with co-operation in the Aral Sea Basin.

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United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment and Health: The UN Think Tank on Water. Targeted research. Capacity development. Public outreach.


Unless well-funded and coordinated joint efforts are stepped up, ongoing over-withdrawals compounded by climate change will cause dangerous water shortages for some 70 million people living in Central Asia’s Aral Sea Basin, according to a new book co-authored by 57 experts from 14 countries and the United Nations.

With six countries competing for resources – Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan – the Basin is one of the world’s most complex watersheds.

Its two major rivers, the Amu Darya and Syr Darya, discharge now only about 10% of what flowed into the Aral Sea until the 1960s, shrinking the sea by more than 80 percent — “one of the world’s most severe and emblematic environmental disasters.”

The Aral Sea Basin, defined in red, straddles six countries in Central Asia. See detailed map in full at, credit UNU-INWEH

The new book:

  • Offers a thorough overview of the Basin’s surface and groundwater resources
  • Underlines the Basin’s hydropower potential and the environmental threats emerging due to minimal river flows
  • Describes the vital role and misuse of freshwater in the Basin, and the underlying historical context, political upheavals, uncoordinated water management approaches, and conflicting public and private sector interests involved
  • Highlights the paramount importance of ice and snow pack in surrounding mountains in sustaining freshwater supplies in the context of climate change
  • Details the politics of transboundary water management, national and regional efforts by the Aral Sea Basin’s neighbours, and international interventions to date
  • Prescribes steps to improve freshwater management in the Basin and advance towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), especially SDG6- water and sanitation.

Observations and recommendations:

  • Given the economic and population growth forecasts, water needs will rise sharply, necessitating greater cooperation and cost reductions.
  • Meteorological and hydrological monitoring in the Basin has declined since the 1990s and is insufficient to support informed water management.
  • Snow, glacier and permafrost monitoring is key to estimating water availability and predicting water-related hazards. Re-establishment of a well-distributed observational network, slowly emerging in the region, needs to accelerate. Regional water data sharing is also “sub-optimal.”
  • Land and water degradation are among the major hindrances to sustainable development in the Basin. Land degradation alone is estimated to cost about US$3 billion in lost ecosystem services annually – about 1 percent of the combined GDP of the Basin’s six countries.
  • Large upstream dam and hydropower developments continue to emerge in the region and, if managed collaboratively, will improve the reliability of water availability for agriculture, domestic use, electricity, and other benefits.
  • However, most of the multilateral and bilateral legal and political undertakings and agreements set up in the region to facilitate interstate cooperation after the Soviet Union dissolved require review and upgrading.
  • Some of the region’s biggest water management challenges come from weak decision-making capacities of state organizations, and uncoordinated and competing interests of different stakeholders and public actors at all levels.
  • Establishing water user associations and other mechanisms essential for decentralized management of water and other resources is slow, inadequate, and must accelerate.
  • The legal frameworks must either be reformed or replaced by new forms of cooperation that successfully translate political will into effective, integrated regional water management.
  • Global political and economic change adds to pressure on Aral Sea Basin countries to end resource competition and open the way to closer cooperation and more effective pursuits of shared interests within broader Eurasian integration processes.
  • The region is characterized by uneven achievement of Sustainable Development Goal 6, ‘Clean Water and Sanitation’. This is demonstrated not only by each individual country’s progress but much more significantly by the contrast between urban and rural population within each state, most noticeably in the case of Afghanistan.

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