A well of cooperation

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Report
01/2022

A well of cooperation

Water is a precious resource in Central Asia. akzente visits Uzbekistan to see how it can be distributed sustainably and fairly – and how this enhances stability in the region in times of climate change.

Text and Photos
: Edda Schlager

It’s just a flick of the wrist, but Solizhon Matmurodov knows exactly what happens when he opens or closes one of the valves controlling the water supply to small canals known locally as ‘aryks’, which run off a retention basin. The aryks are separated from one another with movable barriers. Matmurodov explains: ‘If I open this one, I can irrigate 72 hectares of land growing mostly vines. These ones, on the other hand, irrigate 122 hectares of tomatoes, cucumbers and apples.’

Matmurodov is the Chief Engineer at the state Water Users’ Association, which supplies water to Asaka District in Andijan Region in the far east of Uzbekistan. The system he manages ensures that all the farmers have access to the water they need to irrigate their land. Water means responsibility, so the individual in charge of water distribution has always been one of the most highly respected members of Uzbek society. And Matmurodov attracts considerable respect. Farmers look on appreciatively as he explains his special measuring equipment – the ‘smart stick’ – and then dips it into the water gushing through one of the aryks.

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‘We’re only getting nine litres a second here at the side of the aryk,’ he says, ‘but here in the middle, it’s 450 litres a second.’ The smart stick is around a metre long and bent into a right angle at the bottom, while there is a small white box with a display screen at the top. It is one of Matmurodov’s most important tools, and he places enormous trust in it. It enables him to determine exactly how much water each field gets over any given period. The information is transferred to a database for storage. ‘Farmers used to get too much water sometimes, or too little, and that caused discord,’ he explains. ‘Now, they accept what I allocate because they can all see that they are in fact getting what they need.’

Water is a scarce resource in Central Asia, and climate change and the burgeoning population will make this water shortage much worse in the region over the coming years. On behalf of the German Federal Foreign Office, GIZ implemented the Transboundary Water Management in Central Asia programme between 2009 and 2020. The EU was involved in cofinancing in Uzbekistan between 2016 and 2020.

Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have been able to improve the way in which they coordinate the management of their natural water resources, not only at policy level but also specifically for agricultural irrigation. Employees of the Water Users’ Association in Asaka and other regions have been trained in modern methods and equipped with tools, including smart sticks.

As Caroline Milow, Programme Manager in Uzbekistan, explains, ‘The programme has been a huge success, but after 10 years, we needed something new.’ The Federal Foreign Office’s Green Central Asia initiative, launched in Berlin in 2020, takes cross-border cooperation to a new level. Water management has formed the basis for ‘beginning diplomatic dialogue on climate, environment and security,’ adds Milow. The objective is to foster stronger regional cooperation, improve the exchange of information and form connections with the academic and research community and civil society on climate change.

Climate change is no respecter of borders, so we also need to find cross-border solutions.

Caroline Milow
GIZ Programme Manager for Green Central Asia

The countries in the region all rely on the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers, the life blood of the Aral Sea basin, which is an area of some 1.8 million square kilometres extending from Kazakhstan in the north through Central Asia and into Afghanistan and Iran. Shukhratjon Ergashev manages a small part of the basin. He is the Vice-Chair of the river basin authority in Andijan from where, as he explains, ‘we supply the whole of Central Asia with fruit and vegetables.’ This region of Uzbekistan is sited in the Fergana Valley, which stretches across the east of the country and into parts of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The valley is one of the most fertile – and therefore most densely populated – regions of Central Asia. Irrigation farming has been carried out here for centuries.

River basin authorities are important governmental partners for GIZ in Uzbekistan. As Caroline Milow explains, ‘Local people have technical expertise that we want to promote and broaden so that they can make more effective use of existing resources.’ GIZ and its partners have won particular trust in all the countries involved over recent years, she adds, ‘so we want to work with them and others involved in the Green Central Asia initiative to deepen our involvement and draw up a regional climate change adaptation plan.’

The plan will provide long-term strategies for water use on the basis of climate forecasts and other environmental trends. Water manager Shukhratjon Ergashev: ‘We know what problems we need to tackle. The canal systems date back to the 1970s. They urgently need upgrading.’ That is why he and his colleagues really appreciate the support GIZ provides. ‘And it’s important that the farmers themselves learn how to save water,’ he adds.

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Taking it to the next level

Climate change is having a particularly severe impact on water supply and soil quality in Central Asia, for example as a result of droughts and melting glaciers. This threatens the livelihoods of millions of people and creates significant potential for conflict. The German Federal Foreign Office’s Green Central Asia initiative brought the Central Asian states around the table in early 2020. The founding conference in Berlin marked the start of cross-border political dialogue on climate and security. Green Central Asia also enables stakeholders from the academic and research community and civil society in the region to network with each other and with German experts. The initiative is in line with the EU’s Central Asia strategy. The Central Asia Water Initiative – known as ‘the Berlin Process’ – has formed the basis of cooperation for over 10 years, and GIZ has implemented major parts of it in a number of countries. Now the company is supporting the dissemination of research findings to enable those involved to tackle the challenges of the future.

Contact: Caroline Milow, caroline.milow@giz.de

One of the places they can learn to do this is a six-hectare fruit farm in Andijan. Mohammad Sadiq Hidayatov is one of the farmers who have benefited from training at this model farm. As he drives through rows of apple and pear trees, he explains, ‘We have drip irrigation on two hectares, sprinklers on another two hectares, and normal furrow irrigation on the remaining two hectares.’ He and his colleagues have already seen what difference these irrigation methods can make to water consumption and are putting what they learn into practice on their own farms, he says.

GIZ has now handed over the model farm, tractors, a water reservoir and a pump system to the river basin authority. And Shukhratjon Ergashev believes this initial scheme should be expanded. The Uzbek water expert would like to see recognition at the highest political level that climate change is having a direct impact: ‘We used to have a drought every 30 years or so; now, it’s every seven or eight years,’ he says.

Ergashev has seen bitter conflict over water resources, not only between farmers in his own area but also between the countries of Central Asia. And people in Kyrgyzstan, just 10 kilometres away, face exactly the same problems. ‘But regardless of the politicking over the past few years, we water experts on both sides of the border have always maintained contact,’ he says. Caroline Milow hopes she can continue to rely on this pragmatic approach in future: ‘We need to solve the problems in Central Asia now; if we don’t, security across the region will be at risk.’