Speech of MEP, Head of Intergroup on Climate Change, Biodiversity & Sustainable Development Struan Stevenson at the High-Level Conference “Water and Energy as Instruments for Peace” in the European Parliament on 28 January 2014 (Brussels)
During Soviet times, being an upstream nation in Central Asia was a relatively straightforward affair. Moscow ruled the roost. The Soviets constructed massive hydro-power projects on the Vakhsh River in Tajikistan, retaining water in vast reservoirs during the long winter months to drive the turbines to produce energy for the Tajik population. In the summer, the water was released to provide irrigation facilities for the downstream countries that they could grow cotton and rice. Downstream nations in return supplied the Tajiks with gas, coal and oil to keep their factories working.
Huge irrigation channels and a wide range of downstream canals, dams and reservoirs quickly drained the two main rivers which supply the Aral Sea – the Syr Darya and the Amu Darya, reducing their flow to a trickle. The Aral Sea used to be the fourth largest inland sea in the world, covering more than 40,000 square miles. Within only a few years, the mean water level fell from an average of over 53 metres to only 26 metres. The sea shrank to one thirteenth of its former size, retreating quickly across the desert, leaving a wilderness of desolation and emptying hundreds of lakes and waterways along the course of the rivers that fed it. Some experts predict that in 20 years’ time, the large Southern Aral Sea will disappear altogether.
I visited the former fishing port of Muynak in Uzbekistan in the summer of 2010 and saw the rotting hulks of fishing vessels that now litter the desert. These boats once landed over 30,000 tonnes of fish a year. Today, you have to travel more than 100 miles from Muynak to reach the sea. Unbelievably this global catastrophe did not take centuries to materialise. It happened in the course of one generation. It was like pulling a plug out of a bath and it was entirely man-made!
The impact of the disappearing Aral Sea on the 48 million people who live in the Aral Sea Basin is appalling. Water is a vital resource. Water is life. When it disappears there are enormous economic and social consequences. This is why we look to all states neighbouring the Aral Sea to take ownership of this problem. They are the ones at risk. They will be the biggest losers. Mass migration of environmental refugees may be the end result and this may only be the tip of the iceberg. We must realise the security implications of water loss and climate change. And it is vital that we include Afghanistan in any discussions about future water use. 40% of its territory and 30% of its people live within the Aral Sea basin. In a post conflict Afghanistan, with a stabilising economy, some experts predict that water use may double.
We need better land use in the basin. The continuing production of cotton – the most water hungry crop ever – is at the root of the problem. There is a need for integrated water management to be introduced across the Aral Sea basin. 60% of water is currently being lost in poorly designed irrigation channels and inefficient systems. Drip irrigation will have to be introduced, but is costly and will have to be imported. Such projects need financial assistance.
The EU has a big interest in this issue as a major donor. We need to strengthen dialogue between all the parties. Enhancing stakeholder involvement is imperative. We need sustainable methods of water management and there must be a shared approach to the whole basin. We need to aim for mutually beneficial trans-boundary water agreements. Such agreements cannot be imposed from outside. This is up to the Central Asian republics themselves. It requires political will. Water based peace means constructive dialogue between states, taking into account the needs of social users.
In the meantime, it is essential that we support the completion of the gigantic Rogun hydro-power project in Tajikistan so that the Tajiks may fulfil their full potential by turning water into energy as an instrument of peace. Hydropower projects do not use up water, they recycle it. The downstream nations need to address their own water conservation problems and stop wasting this precious resource. Tajikistan, meanwhile, can provide all of its own energy needs from Rogun and start exporting energy to Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The President of Tajikistan, the dynamic and energetic Emomali Rahmon, is gradually pulling his country up by the bootstraps, with a serious attempt at creating jobs and kick-starting the faltering economy, through the completion of Rogun. This huge $4 billion project has over 45 km of underground tunnels and six giant turbines which will produce a mammoth 3600 MW of electricity every year.
The scale of this project is impressive enough, but its strategic importance for this area of extreme poverty and high political sensitivity is of global significance. Tajikistan shares a 1300 km (830 mile) border with Afghanistan. In Afghanistan and nearby Pakistan, there is abject poverty and a lack of job opportunities driving successive generations of young people into the arms of the drugs barons and Jihadist terrorists. A secure supply of electricity from Tajikistan will transform the economies of these ravaged regions and provide new sources of employment and opportunities for their impoverished and war-weary citizens. This is something that we in the West should welcome and support. I’ve visited Rogun many times and regard it as a project of global significance. Rogun really is the quintessential project to turn water and energy into instruments for peace.