5. November 2013

Conflicts over Scarce Resources?

Ashgabat: ‘city of love and expectations’, as the translation goes. Indeed, visitors of Turkmenistan’s capital might feel like in a romantic, fairy-tale world: All over the city, high-rising white marble buildings brightly reflect the Turkmen sun on 250 days a year. Guests enter the most prestigious of those buildings through several stories high, black doors, adorned with goldenornaments. Amongst this fairy-tale architecture, one does not question Ashgabat’s right to be called the ‘city of love and expectations’.

Ashgabat, however, could quite as well be called the ‘city of fountains’. They are uncountable in the city’s various parks, in front of buildings, in the middle of roads or of roundabouts. In one, water will flow down a several hundred meter long slope right in the middle of a main road; in another, the cascades of a cylindrical monument the height of the Brandenburger Tor never cease. Fountains of all shapes, forms, and colors are everywhere – water is everywhere in Ashgabat.

A little north of Ashgabat, the wind blowing across the Karakum desert makes one want to cover everything but one’s eyes with a scarf to be protected from the dry dust. The Karakum desert makes up over 80 percent of Turkmenistan’s surface area and is one of the world’s most arid deserts. Despite this, one of the main agricultural products of Turkmenistan, just as of bordering Uzbekistan, is the irrigation intensive cotton. Both countries are ‘downstream countries’: They cover their intensive water needs through rivers originating in two other, ‘upstream’, Central Asian states, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. In Soviet times, the questions of which country was to grow cotton, and how water should be distributed between ‘upstream’ and ‘downstream’ countries, were decided centrally.

Nowadays, feelings between the Central Asian states can and do run high on the question of how to arrange the common use of water resources. The issue is a major concern, and the looming effects of climate change and glaciers melting add pressure for the region to come to sustainable settlements. Yet, agreement is not easy to be reached. The stakes are high for all Central Asian players.

Just as high are the stakes for the international community. Experts controversially discuss if scarce resources will lead to an increase of conflicts in the future. If one buys into this premise, as the German Federal Information Service (BND) recently did, Central Asia could well be the test case for the international community to prove that conflicts over scarce resources can be prevented through dedicated involvement and the facilitation of complex negotiation processes between all actors concerned. In Central Asia, the international community has set out to prove that this is possible.