Kyrgyzstan Gets to Play Its Water Card

ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- After decades of supplying water to its thirsty neighbors on terms set by Moscow, independent Kyrgyzstan finally is getting some of what it thinks it is owed for a precious natural resource.

Water that rises high in the snow-capped Tien Shan Mountains is being put almost on par with gas, coal and electricity under a complex barter agreement announced this week by Kyrgyzstan and its former fellow Soviet republics, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

"Water is a commodity," Kyrgyzstan's minister for water resources, Zhenishbek Bekbolotov, said. "Any natural resource that is used should be paid for."

He said the new accord obligates Kyrgyzstan to guarantee sufficient flows through the Syr Darya River to the cotton fields of desert areas in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.

In return, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan agree to help pay for the upkeep of the Kyrgyz water works, to supply gas and coal and to purchase hydroelectricity generated in Kyrgyzstan.

Few nations put a specific price on water that crosses international boundaries, and no specific prices are set on the Syr Darya's volume. But the breakup of the Soviet Union is forcing local leaders to reconsider how to share natural resources once apportioned among them by politicians in Moscow.

"Now each state is sovereign, and each has its own problems to deal with," said Koposyn Kudaibergenov, deputy chairman of the Kazakh Water Committee.

Since 1992, Kyrgyzstan has released water from behind dams on the Syr Darya mainly in the winter, when the flow turns turbines that generate electricity needed to heat homes. It has stored the water in spring and summer, when downstream Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan are desperate for water to irrigate their cotton fields.

Though Kyrgyzstan has its hand on the water tap, it by no means holds the only resource card in the region. It depends on its neighbors for gas and coal.

Uzbekistan, for its part, has frequently reduced or cut off supplies of gas to its neighbors because of huge payment arrears. Kazakhstan has been the worst hit, because what little water it receives from Uzbekistan is polluted by drainage from the cotton fields, which are heavily sprayed with pesticides. Kazakhstan's capital, Almaty, is poorly lit and hit by frequent power cuts because Uzbekistan has cut gas supplies.

Excessive drainage of the Syr Darya and the Amu Darya rivers for irrigation has drastically cut supplies to the Aral Sea, causing it to shrink by nearly half and altering the local climate. Surrounding regions are left with little but dusty residue polluted with pesticides.

Despite the deal announced this week, Uzbekistan's acting minister for water resources, Abdurahim Zhalalov, rejected the notion that water had become a commodity in Central Asia.

"Nobody is trading water," he said. "The commodity is hydroelectricity."

But Kudaibergenov concedes that Kazakhstan probably would not buy hydroelectricity from Kyrgyzstan in the summer, if it didn't have to as part of a deal to ensure water supplies.

He also predicted problems with the accord because there is no agreement on pricing the commodities and resources involved, a difficult issue in a region where commodity trading is a new game.

All three republics are short of cash and, therefore, eager to sell high and buy low, but they have failed to agree on whether to charge their neighbors domestic or world market prices. Last year, when the three countries first signed such a barter agreement, disputes over water and gas supplies continued unabated. Kazakhstan, for instance, received only 70 percent of the pledged supplies of water from the Syr Darya, and much of it in the winter, when it was not needed.

Kudaibergenov accused Kyrgyzstan of behaving like a monopoly. "They say, 'they are our water reservoirs. It's our water on our territory,'" he said. "In the Koran it is written that water should not be sold. We should solve the problems for each other as partners."

Despite their own differences, the three republics have invited neighboring countries to join in efforts to resolve a host of water and energy disputes. Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have clashed over the Amu Darya river, and Kazakhstan has asked China to stop over-using the Irtysh, which flows through Kazakhstan to Russia.