March 03, 2011

In Run Up to World Water Day, Senate Report Warns of Looming Water Crisis in Central Asia

March 22nd will mark the eighteenth World Water Day, an annual
UN-sponsored day to recognize the importance of water, including its increasing
scarcity and competition for it. As we approach this annual event, a new Senate Foreign Relations Committee
report, Avoiding Water Wars: Water Scarcity and
Central Asia's Growing Importance for Stability in Afghanistan and Pakistan
, should help frame the
conversation that many will have this month on water and security.

Water challenges have increasingly garnered the attention of
top U.S. policymakers. Secretary
Clinton told an audience last March on World Water Day that “The
stability of young governments in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other nations depends
in part on their ability to provide their people with access to water and
.” Last month, the Director of National Intelligence James
Clapper testified before Congress that, “The growing pressure generated by growing populations, urbanization,
economic development, and climate change on shared water resources may increase
competition and exacerbate existing tensions over these resources
.” In places such as Yemen, the next decade
looks bleak due to the country’s declining oil reserves and water resources,
Clapper said. And now the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, while focused on
Central Asia, has shed light on the implications of water shortages for security

Yet Secretary Clinton and others have
acknowledged that water scarcity is just as much an opportunity as a challenge.
“In the United States,” she said last March, “water represents one of the great
diplomatic and development opportunities of our time.” Indeed, the Senate report
acknowledged the Obama administration’s efforts to integrate water issues into
U.S. bilateral and multilateral arrangements, including in Afghanistan and
Pakistan, which received about 47 million dollars from the United States in 2009 to fund  water-related
projects, according to the committee report. “For the first time, the United States has elevated
water-related issues in its bilateral relationships with priority countries,
such as Afghanistan and Pakistan,” the report said. “Accordingly, the U.S.
strategy and foreign assistance budgets now include significant investments
allocated toward activities that promote water security through high-visibility
projects, such as expanding water storage capabilities and irrigation.”

In Afghanistan and Pakistan, water has been a perennial
challenge for achieving stability goals. 
President Obama made a surprise visit to Afghanistan last March where he
spoke to the important role that agricultural production
will play in
bolstering long-term stability in Afghanistan and Pakistan, which rely on
agriculture for approximately 31 percent and 21 percent of their GDPs,
respectively. Yet water scarcity in both those countries – exacerbated in part
by unsustainable irrigation practices, poor water governance, uneven
development, and, scientists say, the
impact of climate change on the Himalayan glaciers
that supply many of the
rivers with fresh water – threatens to undermine agricultural development and
stability, which could undermine regional security. Nevertheless, it is a
challenge that the administration is clearly grappling with, as evidenced by
the support for water-related development projects. 

water scarcity in Afghanistan and Pakistan is an important issue that should
continue to be integrated into the whole-of-government strategy for those
countries, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee urged that United States to develop
a broader regional strategy to ensure that the U.S.-funded Afghan and Pakistani
projects do not agitate neighboring states in Central Asia. “By neglecting the interconnectivity
of water issues between Central and South Asia, the U.S. approach could exacerbate
regional tensions,” the report warned.

In a post I published last
June, I pointed to the potential
challenges with water in Central Asia
, including between Kyrgyzstan,
Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan. At the time I was less
sanguine as to the potential for U.S. national security policymakers to keep
their attention on these issues in Central Asia, at least in the long term. Back
then I wrote, “Looking
through a U.S. national security lens, it’s not difficult to see our inherent
interest in a stable Central Asia – especially considering the tenuous
situation to the south in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Looking long term, it is
not unlikely that U.S. national security policymakers will keep attention in
Central Asia (beyond just Afghanistan and Pakistan) even long after U.S.
military operations in Afghanistan have ended.”

willing to reassess given some of the proposed recommendations from the Senate
Foreign Relations Committee. Right off the bat, the Senate report acknowledged
the opportunity to improve water management in Central Asia by integrating data
sharing into our relationships with Central Asian states:

basic technical information to all countries is a constructive way for the
United States to help create a foundation for bona fide discussion and debate
over water management. The United States should support data-related activities
specific to measuring and monitoring water flow and volume for key rivers and
river basins. We should also promote technical partnerships in the region to
monitor glaciers, track shifts in monsoons, and model climatic changes across a
range of water flow scenarios.

kind of sustained engagement could not only help bolster governance in those
countries by giving them access to the data they need to design effective water
management policies, but could also draw continued interest from the U.S.
national security community by giving practitioners access to the data they’ll
need to develop mid- to long-term strategy in the region (including helping them understand how these resource trends could be impacted by climate change). Indeed, one of the
challenges we’ve continually heard from security practitioners is that the data
they need to integrate resource challenges into their security planning is not
available, in part because the states themselves don’t collect the data, or
don’t have the capability to. Supporting an effort to share data could help
address this issue and ensure that water issues are more regularly and evenly
integrated into security planning for the region – including our development
and diplomatic efforts. It is certainly a step in the right direction.

Photo: A USAID constructed tap in the community of Zamankor in Anaba District of Panjsher Province provides fresh water to locals. Courtesy of USAID.