ALMATY, 25 April 2007 (IRIN) - As officials and water specialists from across Central Asia gathered in the Kazakh commercial capital of Almaty to mark a decade and a half of post-Soviet efforts to regulate scarce water supplies in the region, there are doubts about whether they are prepared to make committed efforts to assure water security for the region's more than 55 million inhabitants.
The meeting, which opened on 24 April, is the 47th time the Interstate Commission for Water Coordination (ICWC) - comprising delegates from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan - has met since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. But observers see few concrete achievements.
"[The ICWC] is gathering for its 15th year anniversary but little has been resolved in that time," Kazakh water issues analyst Malik Burlibayev told IRIN in Almaty. "The main obstacle is a lack of. common interests."
Water management during Soviet times was highly centralised, with Moscow instructing the upstream republics of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to accumulate water in their reservoirs in winter and to release it downstream at the beginning of the cotton-farming season to Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan.
In return, the three former Soviet republics provided their upstream neighbours with the fuel and natural gas needed for energy during winter.
There was a "seasonal exchange of water resources and other resources", Masaid Khamidov, Tajik minister of land reclamation and water resources, said.
However, when they all became independent in 1991, their interests started to clash.
"Rising nationalism and competition among the five Central Asia states has meant they have failed to come up with a viable regional approach to replace the Soviet system of management," said a recent report by the International Crisis Group, an international think tank.
The downstream countries require more water for their growing agricultural sectors and rising populations, while the upstream countries are trying to gain more control over their resources and want to use more water for electricity generation and farming, the report said.
Tensions focus on the region's two main rivers, which flow into the Aral Sea. Kyrgyzstan's Syr Darya river winds through Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan's Amu Darya river through Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.
The disputes between the countries often result in a lack of irrigation water for villagers.
Uzbekistan needs uninterrupted water supplies during its vegetation season for its plantations of cotton, a thirsty crop. The country is the world's second largest cotton exporter and fourth largest cotton producer.
Inefficient forecasting and the poor exchange of information also hamper cooperation, Turkmen deputy water industry minister Begench Mommadov said.
There is also friction over reservoir levels. If water from overflowing reservoirs upstream is released in winter, it can flood downstream countries, which in summer suffer water shortages, leading to low crop yields.
"The prospects for the region's sustainable social development depend on. rational use [of water]," Khamidov said.
The states' positions remain unchanged, however. As Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan insist on their right to use water generated in their countries for hydropower, downstream states say water is common property.
"Water should not be seen as a commodity," Shavkat Hamroyev, Uzbek deputy agriculture and water resources minister, told the ICWC, calling for "conflict-free" use of water basins.