Transboundary: Regional Water Management Cooperation in Central Asia (#351)

In Central Asia, water is unevenly distributed with states positioned downstream being placed in a very unfavourable position. The situation is further complicated since the benefits from cooperation are highly asymmetrical. Despite the challenge, the states have taken action and entered into a regional agreement, which attracted the international donor community to engage further. This case illustrates how international initiatives can influence institutional arrangements in transboundary basins.   


The potential conflicts were most pronounced for the populations living furthest downstream, especially Karakalpakstan and Kzyl Orda. Here the water was of very low quality consisting mainly of polluted drainage water that had been returned to the river. 

These populations had – and still have – little bargaining leverage over upstream users (agriculture users at midstream and hydropower users further upstream) because they lacked any resources needed by the upstream users.

Midstream users were in better bargaining positions. Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan (and partially Kazakhstan) primarily needed water for agricultural production. The challenge was to keep water flowing from further upstream. Each of these three countries has large reserves of natural gas. 

In sum, the benefits from cooperation were highly asymmetrical and unevenly distributed. It is largely due to the leadership of the water authorities from five countries and the support from the international community that major conflict did not erupt after independence.

Action taken

In February 1992, the five countries entered into agreement on Cooperation in the Joint Use and Protection of Water Resources of Interstate Significance, affirming the “existing structure and principles of allocation” of transboundary waters.

By signing this agreement, the Central Asian states pledged “strictly to observe the coordinated procedures and established rules on use and protection of water resources,” while recognising the Aral Sea as of common interest to the five countries.

The agreement also formed an Interstate Commission for Water Coordination (ICWC), which subsumed the two existing basin water organisations, and was authorised to determine annual water consumption limits in accordance with actual water availability. 

The following year the Interstate Council on the Aral Sea (ICAS) and the International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea (IFAS) were formed. Voicing and providing support, the international donor community soon endorsed this emerging institutional framework that comprised ICAS, IFAS, ICWC and associated organisations.

This case study reviews how international initiatives influenced institutional arrangements in transboundary basin, where newly established independent states tackle economic, environmental and social problems. The study also discusses the main shortcomings of institution building; these include the lack of political commitment, lack of clear mandates, responsibilities and accountabilities of main actors, and lack of proper coordination of international grant programs.

Lessons learned

  • The international community and the Central Asian states were late to discover that interdependencies of the Soviet Union could be used to foster mutual cooperation. The Aral Sea crisis was viewed primarily as a water problem, not an opportunity for collaboration and economic development by trading energy for water.
  • As a result of the individual pursuit of self-sufficiency in water and energy, the countries have invested in costly solutions instead of adhering to the mutual interdependence of the water and energy systems.
  • External actors have not maintained clear and consistent objectives. Economic and strategic objectives often run counter to policies that encourage collective regional behaviour. As a result, Central Asian states are sceptical about foreign involvement in water management, in particular in downstream countries, which fear that new initiatives may strengthen the upstream countries political position.

Photo credit: Thomas Depenbusch