International tension over water in Central Asia is growing, but the United States can offer only modest help in preventing conflict, a panel of experts has told a Congressional committee.
The U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia, and Emerging Threats held a hearing November 18, "Water Sharing Conflicts and the Threat to International Peace."
Water conflict in Central Asia takes different forms, from the international (as seen in the dispute between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan over the latter's proposed Rogun Dam project) to the local (as seen in recurring border skirmishes between residents of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan in the Ferghana Valley).
In the former case, disputes over water are as much a symptom of greater international conflicts than their cause, argued Amanda Wooden, a professor of environmental politics and policy at Bucknell University who studies Central Asia. "In Central Asia, a direct relationship between water scarcity and interstate conflict is an unlikely scenario. The main water disputes concern the water-energy nexus. Existing cooperation, even with the current weak regional water-sharing institutions, means that conflict is avoidable," Wooden testified. "Internal political problems related to water – such as drought driven hydroelectricity shortages - can spillover into international disputes. The already existing contentious politics of water within several countries in the region combines and is enhanced with finger pointing between Central Asian leaders, who at times have used threats about water as political instruments to influence other issues."
In the case of local conflicts, the source of the dispute is again not necessarily scarcity of water, but the legal confusion created by wrangling between local and national powers, argued Kathleen Kuehnast of the United States Institute of Peace:
Local conflicts must be... considered in the context of clan and business networks that form the basis of local power on which national leaders depend. The prevalence of patron-client relationships, connections, loyalty, manipulation of formal rules and force are the key parameters for governance in these states. At the very core of water management, conflict management depends on these clan and business networks. The gap between the poorly enforced formal, top-down regulations and the local, customary laws that rely on social influence, cohesion and respect for elders has created a situation in which discordant “legal pluralism” has emerged. Therefore, individuals must constantly contend with the issue of “whose rules rule" in everyday contestations. The clash between various rules is intensified at neighboring borders, where differing policies collide among these not-so-friendly states. In many instances, even the formal border demarcation is contested, leaving a no-man’s land that exacerbates local tensions and conflicts....
The international community should take into account the historical and socio-cultural practices that have prevented violence and conflict. Two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the factors that have kept the regional tensions from spilling over may no longer hold.
So what can the U.S. do? One thing is to not adopt the "threat rhetoric" used by Central Asian governments (which have increasingly begun to lobby in Washington on water-related issues), said Wooden: "Threat rhetoric has political meaning and is used by governments to mobilize citizens. Therefore, the U.S. government should be cautious when using threat and risk language in our search to understand potential water problems and in our approach to assisting with these issues, as this could contribute to an at times difficult dialogue between Central Asia states."
Both Wooden and Kuehnast argued that the U.S. should focus on is contributing to greater scientific understanding of water issues in the region, and on helping reduce waste of both water and energy. Kuehnast added that the U.S. could help in conflict management training and technical education, and Wooden added that the U.S. could increase its focus on reducing water pollution and, on the macro-scale, reducing its contribution to global warming, a process that is exacerbating water problems in Central Asia.
The latter recommendation drew an objection from Dana Rohrabacher, the California Republican who chairs the subcommittee, who argued that the science behind global warming isn't convincing enough to merit U.S. action.