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Published: 18 June 2004


As much as 90% of the water of the two rivers that feed the Aral Sea – the Syr Darya and the Amu Darya (total flow 116 km3 a year) – is used up before reaching it. Most of this water is used for the irrigation of crops such as cotton. If present trends continue, the Aral Sea will disappear altogether in the not-so-distant future despite the many piecemeal efforts to save it.

These are some of the findings of a recent study by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) and the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP). These two United Nations regional commissions have recently concluded a project on the links between water and energy in Central Asia and published the results.1 In the first major project of its kind in a subregion where water is scarce and cooperation often an uphill struggle, the two regional commissions have brought together local water and energy decision makers and experts and produced up-to-date diagnostic studies and a cooperation strategy that four of the Central Asian countries have endorsed.

Owing to economic and social problems, there is not enough money to maintain and rehabilitate the water infrastructure that is essential for the subregion’s agriculture, on which many people rely for their livelihoods and their food. The deteriorating dams, canals, pumping stations and drainage systems make irrigation even less efficient, waste more water and degrade productive agricultural land, the study also notes.

Central Asia’s energy resources are unevenly distributed. While Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are relatively well supplied with hydrocarbon resources, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan rely largely on imports and their own hydropower. Moreover, the energy industry is underdeveloped and its facilities run down. The extremely inefficient use of energy resources means that conservation and energy efficiency are a priority.

When they became independent, the Central Asian States agreed to continue with the Soviet water allocation quotas until a new solution could be negotiated. However, the sovereign States have found it hard to work out new water-sharing agreements. The upstream (Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan) and downstream (Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan) countries have different interests, which is why cooperation has been so tricky. For example, the increased use of water for electricity generation in the wintertime by energy-poor Kyrgyzstan has had a negative impact on the downstream countries, which use water mainly for irrigation in the summer. If, as expected, Afghanistan’s water use increases, this will make matters worse.

With water in short supply, daunting environmental problems and a deteriorating infrastructure in the water sector, the Central Asian States have to strengthen their cooperation and find new agreements. In the energy sector, too, it is necessary for them to improve their cooperation, for example by re-establishing the Central Asian Unified Power Grid.

The cooperation strategy, proposed in the study, gives a concentrated recipe for future water and energy policies and cooperation in the region. It is, for instance, essential to develop the legal framework for water and energy cooperation, to strengthen national and regional institutions, to improve monitoring and information on water resources, and to protect water and energy resources.

The two Executive Secretaries of UNECE and ESCAP are paying high-level visits to the five Central Asian States this year to discuss ways of further strengthening the support to national and regional efforts, including the implementation of the cooperation strategy.

For more information about this project or the United Nations Special Programme for the Economies of Central Asia (SPECA), please visit the UNECE web site:

or contact the Regional Advisers:

Mr. Bo Libert

UNECE Environment and Human Settlements Division

Palais des Nations, office 315

CH - 1211 Geneva 10, Switzerland

Phone: +41 (0)22 917 23 96

Fax: +41 (0)22 917 01 07



Mr.Evgeniy Nadezhdin

UNECE Industrial Restructuring, Energy and Enterprise Development Division

Palais des Nations, office 460

CH - 1211 Geneva 10, Switzerland

Phone: +41 (0)22 917 13 90

Fax: +41 (0)22 917 00 38

1Strengthening cooperation for rational and efficient use of water and energy resources in Central Asia. Special Programme for the Economies of Central Asia (SPECA). United Nations Sales No. GV. E. 04.04. ISBN 92-1-101070-5. 106 p. It is also available on

Ref: ECE/ENV/04/P10

United Nations Economic Commission for Europe

Information Unit

Palais des Nations, 

CH-1211 Geneva 10, Switzerland

Tel.: +41 (0) 22 917 44 44

Fax: +41 (0) 22 917 05 05