Photo credit Azattyk Media
Central Asia is facing a severe water crisis that threatens not only economic development but also the lives of millions of people. The lack of freshwater due to climate change and inefficient water management poses significant challenges for the region’s countries. With the advent of summer, the capitals and many small towns of Central Asia are faced with an acute problem of access to drinking water. CAN EECCA analyzed the situation.
Lack of water in large cities of Kazakhstan
Kazakhstan is a “water-dependent” country. Only 2.8% of its territory is covered with water, while arid zones represent two-thirds. A significant part of the water resources comes from neighboring countries, which is why the issue of using transboundary rivers is vital for the republic. By 2030, the volume of freshwater may be reduced by five times to 23 km3, which is comparable to the annual consumption rate.
Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, is experiencing a water crisis highlighting disparities in access to resources in the city. Since May 2023, there have been protests against water cuts in Astana, and last week, residents of two apartment buildings in the capital even blocked a road to draw attention to the problem. The protests coincided with extreme heat when the air temperature reached 38-40 degrees above zero. The press service of “Astana su arnasy” (Water management service of Astana) since May 23 updates the list of districts and houses where the water is turned off. “Due to the growth of the city’s population and the intensive development of the capital, the enterprise faced a limitation of the design capacity for the drinking water production. As a result, from March 28, 2023, the enterprise was forced to introduce measures to regulate water pressure and set a schedule for its release,” the company said. “Astana su areas. The city’s water management noted that private-sector residents actively use drinking water to water green spaces.
The head of the environmental NGO, “Angel” Lyudmila Petrova, lives in Atbasar city of Kazakhstan. Since the beginning of summer, the issue of providing the population with drinking water has also been acute in her provincial town.
“This year, in many regions of Kazakhstan, there is a very acute problem with the provision of drinking water, and each region has its reasons. In the capital Astana, this is mainly due to the growth of the population, and, accordingly, the load on the infrastructure, which cannot cope, is growing. There are also errors in the design of internal networks, deterioration of communications, and lack of groundwater surveys. In the Egindykolsky district of the Akmola region on June 2 of this year. Due to the lack of water, an emergency regime was declared, the main problem in the outdated water supply. In many settlements, drinking water does not rise to the upper floors due to low pressure, as the private sector uses drinking water for watering vegetable gardens. Systemic failures also occur due to the lack of proper control at the local level; it is often necessary to work with the consequences instead of prevention. For example, in Atbasar, the issue of raising water tariffs for the population is being considered to support the service organization. Instead of solving problems at the republican level, responsibility is shifted onto the citizens themselves in the regions.”
Bishkek without drinking water
In the capital of Kyrgyzstan, Bishkek, residents found themselves without access to clean drinking water for several days, which caused a wave of discontent and led to protests, including blocking the capital’s main roads. The city authorities are introducing measures to respond to the situation. In particular, they called on the population to use less water in everyday life, not to use drinking water when irrigating household plots and back gardens, and for entrepreneurs whose business is associated with consuming large amounts of water to stop using it for a while.
Bishkek is one of several major cities in Central Asia where criticism of authorities over groundwater management is on the rise. They tend to drop in the summer.
Janybek Kulumbetov, resource efficiency expert at Unison Group NGO identified the main causes of water shortage in the region and in Bishkek.
“In Central Asia, especially in Kyrgyzstan, there is a clear shortage of water supply. This is due to climate change, which is the main cause of the problem. However, our unsustainable approach to water use also exacerbates the situation. We do not use water economically and do not pay due attention to its resources. Problems arise from an outdated and insufficiently maintained irrigation and water supply system. To solve this problem, it is necessary to apply modern water-saving technologies in everyday life and industry. We can install aerators in our homes, use motion sensors to control water flow, and use two-button toilets. It is also helpful to install water use meters to encourage sustainable use. Modernizing the irrigation system is necessary, replacing outdated methods with more efficient ones, such as drip irrigation. In general, the problem of climate change has a significant impact on our lives, and we must pay attention to this by applying modern water-saving technologies. This problem is relevant not only for Bishkek but also for all settlements, where the issue of clean drinking water is becoming more acute.”
According to the World Bank, more than 300 villages in Kyrgyzstan have never had a drinking water supply system. In another 600, there is no clean water due to the deterioration of water pipes or the stoppage of work on installing water pipes. In total, there are about 1800 settlements in the country. About a million Kyrgyzstanis need help with access to clean drinking water. Currently, 40% of the country’s population drinks water from ditches, rivers, canals, and springs and uses imported water.
Except for Tashkent, drinking water is cut off in all regions of Uzbekistan
Uzbekistan is in 25th place on the list of 164 countries with a water shortage, as stated in the World Resources Institute (WRI) report. According to the study, Uzbekistan is on the list of 27 countries experiencing high water scarcity. The hydropower resources of Uzbekistan make up only 4.92% of the entire territory of the country, the total water resources are 50–60 km3 per year, of which only 12.2 km3 are formed on the part of the republic, and the rest of the water comes from outside – from the Tien Shan and Pamir mountains -Altai, from melting snow and glaciers in summer. The central part of water resources goes to irrigate cotton fields. By 2030, the republic’s population has been projected to increase to almost 40 million people, which will cause a reduction in available water resources by 7-8 km3. Under these conditions, the shortage of water resources will increase by 2030 from the current 13-14% to 44-46%, which will slow down the development of agriculture and other industries.
The head of the NGO “Ecologist” Nargiz Kosimova commented on the situation in Uzbekistan.
“Currently, drinking water is not cut off only in Tashkent; in almost all regions, water is often supplied at a particular time. In many regions, especially in remote areas, residents are forced to buy water and make efforts to use it economically. Drinking water scarcity is associated with the effects of climate change, with human activities leading to a reduction in water resources due to the pollution of freshwater ecosystems and the impact of urbanization and changes in land use.
One of the ways to overcome the growing shortage of fresh water in Uzbekistan is to save it for industrial and domestic needs and stop the discharge of industrial, agricultural, and domestic wastewater into inland waters. For Uzbekistan, the lack of water is a very urgent problem, given that its shortage in several regions of Uzbekistan, particularly in Karakalpakstan, can lead to a social and environmental crisis. Already today, there is a lack of water not only for agricultural purposes but also for the domestic needs of the population, especially in Kashkadarya, Syrdarya, Khorezm, Jizzakh, and Fergana regions.”
Three main ways to solve the water crisis in the countries of Central Asia
- Cooperation between countries. One of the key factors in overcoming the water crisis in Central Asia is cooperation between the states of the region. The water resources of Central Asia, such as the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers, are transboundary and involve joint management. Countries must develop and implement agreed action plans based on fair and efficient use of water resources. However, regional structures dealing with water issues need more stakeholder trust. Within the framework of Central Asia’s Water and Energy Program, annual water forums and various levels’ of meetings are carried out to create favorable conditions for improving water and energy security in the region. However, at the moment, there need to be more concrete steps to strengthen cooperation in the water sector.
- Increasing the efficiency of water resources use. Countries in the region should make efforts to improve the efficiency of irrigation systems by introducing advanced technologies and water management practices. This may include upgrading irrigation systems, using drip irrigation, and adopting modern agricultural practices that will reduce water loss and increase crop yields. In addition, it is essential to develop infrastructure for rainwater collection and storage, as well as industrial and domestic use.
- The development of alternative water sources can play an important role in resolving the water crisis in Central Asia. One of the possible ways is the development of underground water resources and the use of seawater. The region’s countries may also consider opportunities for cooperation in transboundary water projects.
The water crisis in Central Asia requires urgent and coordinated action by the region’s countries. Combating climate change requires effort at the national and regional levels and, in parallel, building resilience and strengthening water security. Taking effective action in all these areas will change the lives of tens of millions of people in Central Asia.
Written by Baktygul Chynybaeva, communication manager of CAN EECCA