About the Region

Amongst many other natural resources available in Central Asia water is perhaps the most crucial one for economic and social development of the region. Since the breakup of USSR in 1991, the Central Asian states have been struggling to manage their massive irrigation infrastructure put in place during the Soviet era. There are 5 newly independent states in the region – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan.

The average multi-year river run-off formed in all these countries totals to about 196 cub.km a year. The two major river systems of Amu-Darya and Syr-Darya are especially important in supplying water to the regional economics. Water availability by different countries of the region is extremely uneven. Tajikistan has about 51.2 cub.km formed yearly inside its territory plus 29.2 cub.km coming from outside. Out of this volume only 22.5 cub.km is utlized locally with the rest flowing out. 57.5 cub.km are originated from Kazakhstan with another 43.4 cub.km coming from elswhere. Out of this 54.8 cub.km goes out of the country and 57.3 cub.km is utilized. Uzbekistan out of 99.5 cub.km of total river waters flowing through its territory uses 52.4 cub.km. for its needs.

Central Asia has one of the oldest systems of irrigated agriculture in the world, with the history of irrigation dating back thousands of years. In the early 20th century (pre-Soviet times), water distribution was based on the Islamic Shar’ia law. According to Shar’ia, water was regarded as a common good. The public owned all canals and ditches collectively with the main principle for water sharing being for a landowner to receive sufficient water to fill his/her field (Bartold 1970, Mukhamedjanov. 1986).

During the Soviet era, Central Asia was covered with large irrigation schemes serving a total of about 8.0 million ha of irrigated cropland. Massive irrigation and drainage systems were designed to accommodate the needs of large-scale farm units owned and controlled by the state. These large farms consisted of a number of production units called “brigades” with water allocated and distributed against “agro-technical operations plans.” From the mid-1960s, water distribution in Central Asia was demand-based. In the mid-1980s this was replaced by the “adjusted water demand principle” (“limitirovannoye vodopol’zovazniye” in Russian), requiring proportionate adjustments to the initially expressed water demands in situations of lower water availability.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the integrated large-scale irrigation systems had to be shared by the newly established independent Central Asian states. Each nation undertook its own agricultural, land and water reforms to sub-divide state farms into smaller, farmer-owned or managed units. In some cases, farmers are free to plant whatever crops they like, but cotton and wheat are still mandated, for instance in Uzbekistan. In Kyrgyzstan there are tertiary canals that supply water to only a few farmers in some areas, and to hundreds in others. Previously, these canals served big collective farms with the entire system designed to suit large-scale farming. Thus, previously functional water management practices have become unsuitable or even redundant, resulting in chaos, inequity and unreliability in the present water delivery at tertiary level. This has also led to a mismatch between water supply and actual cropping pattern needs, and an increase in the number of water-related disputes.

Presently, IWMI is collaborating with the ICWC, its Scientific Information Center (SIC-ICWC), the Swiss Agency for International Development Cooperation (SDC), and the water and agricultural ministries of the Central Asian countries to form a coherent institutional framework capable of addressing shared issues of water management. The goal is to develop a framework to transfer water management responsibilities from agencies managing water along administrative boundaries to an institution managing water along hydrological boundaries.

Researchers are also looking at the issue of Irrigation Management Transfer in the region. The goal is to create an enabling environment for Water Users Associations to improve on-farm water management. Thus, IWMI-led projects in the region aim at developing, pilot-testng and providing frameworks and guidelines for further institutional reforms ensuring effective water use in this region.