On May 20, water specialists, scientists and government officials gathered to discuss strategic challenges and opportunities in the Central Asian water sector. Participants represented all Central Asia countries, Afghanistan and Europe. This was the 4th webinar of the program “Water as a driver of sustainable recovery”.
This research process is implemented by the Corvinus University of Budapest and supported by the Blue Peace Central Asia initiative (BPCA) of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI), and the Regional Environmental Centre for Central Asia (CAREC). The program is scheduled for two years, it will last until the end of 2022.
Cooperation is not optional – it’s a necessity
Ambassador Dr Guy Bonvin, Swiss Special Envoy on Water for Central Asia, in his opening statement stressed that Central Asia is entering a very unstable zone: climate change increasingly impacts water availability, while water infrastructure is fast degrading, which directly impacts upon the socio-economic development of the region, water being at its heart. The aim of the day is to launch the urgent discussion on how to jointly manage the strategic resource called water with a long term perspective, called noted Dr Bonvin.
Professor Danilo Turk, the Chairman of the High Level Panel on Water and Peace in his keynote address emphasized that water is the basis of security and development. Finding cooperative solutions to the problems of the water sector, like the development of a smart regional investment concept should become a shared strategic objective of the countries of the region.
Ambassador Tuula Yrjölä, Director of the Conflict Prevention Center of the OSCE Secretariat reminded that since the adoption of the 1975 Helsinki Final Act, OSCE participating States have recognized the link between water management, environmental cooperation and peaceful inter-state relations as an integral part of our concept of comprehensive security.
Experts from Central Asia gave an overview of strategic aspects of water management in their countries. Water is a strategic resource of increasing importance for the region, as most of the territory of Central Asia is arid, therefore suitable only for irrigated agriculture. Prognoses show that the amount of water in the region will decrease, but economic development and population growth will continue increasing demand for water. Irregular weather patterns, like longer and more frequent droughts, are further aggravating the emerging water stress.
Participants agreed that strengthening regional cooperation on the water is not just a tool to support economic growth. It is essential for the security and stability of the region. Only an integrated, cross-sector and cross-country approach to water can result in sustainable solutions.
Speaking about cooperation, participants stressed that including Afghanistan as a Riparian of the Aral Sea basin in the dialogue is essential. The region needs to leave behind outdated, vague agreements: decisions must become concrete, long-term and underpinned by a comprehensive economic basis for regional cooperation on water. Another important factor for efficient and rational management of water resources is increased transparency through widespread monitoring and data sharing. This will strengthen mutual trust, which now is growing in the region. Competition over resources should turn into a partnership.
Experts noted that improved decision support, including strategic advice, is a precondition of finding long-term, cooperative, mutually advantageous solutions to the problems of the water sector. Human capacity building should therefore be among the first steps towards integrated water resources management at the national and regional levels. Professionals from different sectors linked to water (energy, agriculture, communal and industrial water supply, environment protection) should learn to conduct a substantive, comprehensive dialogue and trust each other.
It’s important to disseminate and replicate good practices
Dam safety: The webinar also presented success stories of cooperation on water management in Central Asia, among them the activity of the International Teaching Center for Dam Safety. It was founded in 2012 by IFAS with the support of the UN Economic Commission for Europe. Twice a year the center hosts training courses on the safety of water facilities for Central Asian specialists. The Center could bring more benefit for the region, if funding for its activities would be more stable.
Intra-regional development assistance: The Chairman of the Board of Kaz AID spoke about the importance of intra-regional development assistance in support of economic development, resilience and security. The newly established development agency of Kazakhstan is ready to support activities aimed at improving regional water resources management in Central Asia.
Blue Peace Index: The Blue Peace Index, developed by the Economist Intelligence Unit, compares the efficiency of water resources management in seven transboundary river basins of the world. It was presented during the second webinar of the program “Water as a driver of sustainable recovery”. Based on the Index, a group of young researchers of Corvinus University presented plans for a more detailed comparison of water resources management in the Amudarya, Syrdarya and Tigris-Euphrates basins.
Despite many similarities, like arid climate and significant environmental damage caused by short-sighted economic policies, efficiency of water resources management in these basins differs significantly: Central Asian countries have managed to maintain cooperation on water, which helped them achieve rapid economic development and social stability. At the same time, the study warns that in Central Asia the melting of glaciers leads to increased water flows, but only for a few decades. In about three decades, the situation will change. The amount of water will then dramatically decrease: Central Asia has a narrow window of opportunity to prepare for future challenges and strengthen its resilience.
Inspiration for enhancing dialogue and action
In a panel discussion with the participation of the Deputy Head of the UN Regional Center for Preventive Diplomacy for Central Asia and leading researchers of the European Marshall Center and Corvinus University, the crucial role of the UN in supporting a global and regional dialogue on water was emphasized. The UN Decade on Water, support to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals and the high level political and strategic discussions conducted under the umbrella of the UNRCCA provide a solid basis for further, structured strategic dialogue on water.
The event was the last of the series of four webinars of the program. The main objective of these online meetings was to preserve the dialogue on water resources management in Central Asia during the period of travel restrictions and highlight new challenges and opportunities for the water sector brought about by the pandemic.
The webinars demonstrated the importance and at the same time, complexity of involving the broad range of stakeholders, whose work is linked to water - engineers, economists, environmental experts, financial and investment specialists, strategic analysts – in a constructive dialogue. Participants agreed that this dialogue should continue on different levels: from high-level political negotiations to informal talk between experts, supported by research. Ambassador Dr Guy Bonvin, Swiss Special Envoy on Water for Central Asia, noted that to maintain the discussion it is extremely important for all participant to stay on board and to support and feed this “community of practice”. One shall keep in mind that solutions of a sustainable water sector also lay outside of the water sector. He added that Teamwork is the only route to ensure the wealth – health – and peace desired by each and everyone in Central Asia
The organizations that carry out the Program “Water as a driver of sustainable recovery” would be ready to support the preparation, launching and conduct of a structured strategic dialogue on water, with the participation of institutes of strategic studies and other interested stakeholders.