ALMATY (Reuters) - The five leaders of Central Asian nations will hold a summit this week to try to end a bitter row over water use in one of the world’s driest regions.
The dispute over cross-border water sharing in the vast region north of Afghanistan is a worry for its leaders who know how much stability in their ethnically diverse and potentially volatile nations depends on the scarce commodity.
On April 28, the presidents of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan will meet to discuss water use — the summit’s official agenda — and other pressing issues such as energy security and cooperation with the United States on cargo transit for troops fighting in Afghanistan.
Central Asian leaders, despite their geographical proximity, meet infrequently and usually on the sidelines of other regional summits — making this week’s summit in Kazakhstan a rare event.
“Expectations are high, even though no one expects them to sit down and solve everything in one day,” said Eduard Poletayev, an independent analyst in Kazakhstan.
“It’s a step in the right direction, toward more integration. ... It will make people realize further that water is one of the most important issues in Central Asia.”
Uzbek President Islam Karimov, one of the region’s most reclusive and longest-serving leaders, will also be a focus.
All Central Asian nations are criticized in the West over human rights abuses, but Uzbekistan has been at the center of particular attention since troops fired on protesters in 2005 to quell a riot, killing hundreds, according to witnesses.
Karimov, who usually limits his visits to other former Soviet countries, has not traveled much abroad since then. His latest official foreign visit was to the Caspian nation of Azerbaijan in late 2008.
Central Asia is one of the world’s driest places and, due to 70 years of Soviet agricultural policy, water-guzzling crops such as cotton remain the main livelihood for most of its 58 million people.
A communist-era legacy of decaying pipe networks is also hampering sustainable distribution, analysts say.
The most emphatic symbol of the problem is the Aral Sea — lying between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, and once the world’s fourth largest lake — which has shrunk by 70 percent as Moscow planners siphoned off water for cotton irrigation projects in Uzbekistan.
Other big problems are between upstream countries such as Kyrgyzstan, a mountainous nation with massive hydro resources, and downstream consumers such as Uzbekistan which has aggressively opposed construction of new hydro stations in the upstream nations.
The region’s most populous country, Uzbekistan is worried that the upstream states will gain political leverage over it by regulating water flows through new hydro plants.
“The deficit of water resources that may in the future be in greater demand than petroleum and natural gas has already become a reality for many districts of the inner Eurasia,” Global Research, a Canadian-based think tank, said an April 23 note.
“The difference of interests of the ‘upstream’ and ‘downstream’ Central Asian countries that poses a threat of ending in an inter-state conflict is both a diplomatic and geopolitical challenge to Russia.”
Russia, which sees the region as part of its traditional sphere of interest, wants to invest in new hydro projects there and has sought to play a role in regional water talks, has not been invited to the summit.
Editing by Louise Ireland