Central Asia ‘On Brink Of Disaster’; Abundant With Oil & Gas, Severe Water Crisis Chokes The Region

Central Asians have a saying,” Don’t ask how much land you have; ask how much water you have.” This explains how precious and rare commodity water is for the vast steppes of the region. Feuds among powerful satraps were often rooted in water disputes.

Central Asian history is closely connected with the impact of the vagaries of weather. Earthquakes have often caused changes in the direction of big rivers. Hot and long summers have often dried up the rivers before they reach their destination.

The ancient Aryan race of antiquity said to have risen in the Central Asian Steppes, was forced to abandon their homeland and move to greener pastures because the physical changes brought about the change in the direction of rivers.

For example, the big Oxus River, whose waters turned enormous areas into grasslands, was crucial for human and animal life and the flora and fauna of the region. This was why we once had the largest pastoral habitation in Central Asia. 

When the rivers suddenly changed their course, they left behind fallow lands unfit for human and animal life. This is the main reason for the sparse population in the entire region.

For instance, Kazakhstan is almost as large as India in terms of area, but its population is far less. According to Worlddata.info, India has a population density of 433.7 people per square kilometer, while Kazakhstan has a population density of 7.2 people per square kilometer.

According to available statistics, India’s population density in 2021 was 473.42 people per square kilometer. In 2011, India’s population density was 382 people per square kilometer. According to MacroTrends, Kazakhstan’s population density in 2022 was 7.12 people per square kilometer.

Loss Of Water Bodies

The dwindling health of the Amu-Darya River is a stark illustration of the consequences of poor water resources management. Amu River (which Greek historians called the Oxus and the lands through which it flowed as Trans-Oxiana) originates in the Badakhshan mountains of Tajikistan and once ended up somewhere in the present State of Uzbekistan.

But today, we find it disappearing in the sands of Uzbekistan. Geographers believe that millennia ago, the Oxus emptied itself in the Aral Sea, which is in Uzbekistan. The Aral Sea has lost its glory because it is shrinking fast and is no longer a ‘Sea.’ At best, it is a vast cesspool, and its water is totally polluted and unsafe for human use.

The five countries in the region collectively consume approximately 127 billion cubic meters of water, with about 80 percent, or 100 billion cubic meters, used annually for agriculture. However, only 50 percent of the water earmarked for agriculture is utilized effectively. This implies that half of the water does not reach the fields and is lost along the way due to the poor condition of irrigation facilities and wasteful agricultural practices.

It may be mentioned in passing that Iranians once also faced the loss of water owing to heat and evaporation. They had devised an indigenous system of digging underground channels and carrying the water for use in agriculture. In Farsi, these are called Qanat. However, we have not encountered any such practice in Central Asia.

So, what is the situation on the ground in Central Asia? Summing it up, these countries are flushing away vast quantities of water and getting little in return. That is why Central Asia’s water use efficiency indicator has been found to be eight times lower than the global average. It is an alarming situation.


Obviously, mismanagement of a critical life source can have serious repercussions. Of the region’s 79 million people, fully 22 million lack access to safe water. So, for every 10 Central Asians, three live perennially without the certainty that they can find a glass of clean water to drink.

And that ratio may get much worse without remedial action. 

The World Bank estimates that the population of the region is poised to grow to 90-110 million by 2050. Continued urbanization, climate change, droughts, and the demand for increased food production will only exacerbate the strain on scarce water resources.

An immediate turn to rational usage of shared water resources on a sustainable, equitable, and cooperative basis is imperative.

Aral Sea

This year, Kazakhstan has taken over as chair of the International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea, or IFAS. It will perform that role for three years. We are not clear about how the IFAS is going to bring about any radical change in the health of the Aral Sea.

As observers have fairly noted, the Aral Sea is scarcely a sea, and the International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea lacks funds. Kazakh officials have stated that they intend to give new vigor to this body.

The IFAS plan is rather hazy so far. The essential question is of funding. IFAS needs a kick-start if it is to be of any use.

Kandadji hydroelectric dam
File Image: Hydroelectric Dam

Remedial Measures

The future of water in Central Asia is about numbers, which means up states and low states. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are two mountainous states in Central Asia. The rest of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan are nearly waterless.

How the imbalance in water resources can be removed judiciously is not a simple question. Politicians in the lower section demand trans-border water facilities that may not be there. Disputes remain as long as an amicable solution is not found.

Another important factor that has to be taken into account is Afghanistan as a stakeholder in water resources. In 2022, the Taliban-run government initiated the construction of a significant irrigation project known as the Kosh-Tepa Canal.

The canal spans 285 kilometers from Balkh to Faryab province. It is expected that work on it will be completed by 2028. Once finished, Kosh-Tepa will have the capacity to divert up to 20 percent of water from the Amu Darya. This development could raise tensions between Central Asian countries and Afghanistan.

There may be ideological and political differences between Afghanistan and the five countries of Central Asia, but Kabul’s practical participation in water management processes is a sine qua non for sustainable management of the entire basin.

The crucial and decisive measure in water management in Central Asia is an extensive awareness among the people of the most judicious use of water. Using water efficiently means more of it is available to go around, less pollution, and higher productivity, which in turn means more money.

All the region’s governments must encourage the introduction of modern technologies, digitalization, and green investments in the water sector.