BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan — A new fight over water is looming between Kyrgyzstan and its energy-rich Central Asian neighbors — and analysts say the likely winner could be Russia.
The former Soviet republics neighboring Kyrgyzstan have long accused it of hoarding its water resources, and Kyrgyz plans to dam a key river to generate electricity likely will reinvigorate those criticisms.
The Kyrgyz Energy Ministry said Thursday that it is in talks with Kazakhstan and Russia about building Kambarata-1 — the first of two hydroelectric power plants Moscow agreed to finance during a September visit by Russian President Vladimir Putin to the capital, Bishkek.
Kambarata-1 would operate via a dam on the Naryn River, which begins in the Tian Shan Mountains in central Kyrgyzstan and flows west into Uzbekistan. The Kyrgyz Energy Ministry noted that Uzbek officials declined to attend discussions about the proposed hydroelectric plant.
Observers say Russia’s deal to finance Kambarata-1 is part of Moscow’s effort to exert control over former Soviet republics through scarce water resources.
"Russia is trying to fully invest to penetrate this very important market to control the entire region," said Bakyt Beshimov, a former Kyrgyz parliamentarian. “To set up control over the energy resources is much harder for Russia … therefore, water is a less expensive political adventure for Russia."
During Mr. Putin’s visit, Russia forgave nearly $500 million of Kyrgyz debt, and Kyrgyzstan extended Moscow’s lease on key military facilities in the country. American officials have been negotiating with Kyrgyz leaders on extending the U.S. lease on the Manas Transit Center, part of a key supply route for NATO troops in Afghanistan. The lease will expire in 2014.
Meanwhile, Uzbekistan has openly warned of potential regional conflict over water resources. And analysts say that both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, which rely on water flowing from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, have reasons to be concerned that Kyrgyz dams could leave them high and dry.
"They rely on the water coming down for irrigation, particularly in the summer, so it is a problem, and the fact that it is a problem explains why this consistently has been an issue in the whole post-Soviet period," said Rico Isaacs, a lecturer specializing in Central Asia at Oxford Brookes University in Britain. "The Central Asian states have never been able to resolve this, and the conflict has caused significant problems."
In Kazakhstan, the overuse of farmland irrigation has reduced the Aral Sea, once one of the world’s largest lakes, to four separate bodies of heavily polluted water that, combined, amount to less than a tenth of the Aral's original size — a stark reminder of the impact of rerouting waterways.
Regional conflict over water erupted as recently as April, when Uzbekistan cut gas supplies to Tajikistan over that country’s plans to complete a Soviet-era dam. Tajikistan called Uzbekistan’s action an "economic blockade."
Ahead of Mr. Putin’s recent tour of Central Asia, Reuters reported that Uzbek President Islam Karimov warned of potential conflict over water security.
"Water resources could become a problem in the future that could escalate tensions not only in our region but on every continent," Mr. Karimov said. "I won't name specific countries, but all of this could deteriorate to the point where not just serious confrontation, but even wars could be the result."
Local analysts say that with large sections of Kyrgyzstan accustomed to regular power outages, the hydroelectric project is a necessity — but so is the blessing of water-poor neighbors who control the flow of energy resources.
"I think that the building of [hydroelectric] stations without coordination with Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan can provoke their resistance," said Sergey Masaulov, head of the Center for Perspective Research, a think tank in Bishkek. "We need to coordinate building with our neighbors; otherwise, it the will be unpleasant for us: total closure of border with Uzbekistan, collapse of the united energy system of Central Asia."
Uzbekistan has long been a difficult and unpredictable player in the region, and its relations with Russia are rocky. Earlier this year, Uzbekistan pulled out of the Collective Security Treaty Organization of which Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are all members.
"It's a difficult position for Russia to be in, given the water fights between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan in particular, and Russia has to be quite careful as to who it's seen to be backing," said James Nixey of the Russia and Eurasia program at the London-based think tank Chatham House. "Its ultimate aim, of course, is to secure influence and reintegrate that part of the post-Soviet space into a new entity — not a Soviet Union, but nonetheless into multinational grouping."
Still, analysts say Russia can increase its leverage in the region if it can position itself as the mediator among the Central Asian states on water security.
"Russia wants a stable Central Asia and would like at least cordial relationships between these states," Mr. Isaacs said. "It will probably take Russia coming in and negotiating a settlement to resolve these disputes, and that’s probably just the kind of thing that Russia wants to be doing."