Friday, April 20, 2012

We built this nation on these mountains... rivers... and dams

The importance of energy security in attaining both national security and prosperity has been pronounced since the industrial revolution. Today, as the rising cost of crude oil threatens to break the backs of the global community, debating the issues surrounding energy production, distribution and consumption has become unavoidable.

However, there is a skewed focus. Analysts have mostly focused on how the industrialized economic-core acquires fuel resources from the periphery. Little attention has been expended on how countries without a massive mineral energy reserve will cope with development and how the challenges they face may lead to wider complications.

A recent article on Asia Times Online by Eelke P Kraak, titled "Power nexus skews Kyrgyz dam demand," captured the importance of energy politics in the periphery and sketched out possible consequences of the developments in Central Asia going awry.

To briefly summarize the crucial events, Kyrgyzstan has been constructing hydroelectric dams along the Syr Darya River, which brings water from the Tian Shan Mountains to the Aral Sea. For Bishkek, the project is absolutely necessary for the establishment of a functioning economy. However, this project has instigated conflict with Uzbekistan, which requires the water from the Syr Darya for its agriculture.  And the conflict is just beginning:  the Kambarata II Dam, which was inaugurated in August of 2010, was the first of 6-8 damns planned along the Kambarata cascade on the Syr Darya-Naryn river system.

Kraak sees the Soviet legacy of forcing industrial agriculture on the Central Asian nations as the roots of the conflict.
The Kambarata cascade is by no means the first hydropower intervention in the Aral Sea basin of which the Syr Darya covers half the drainage area. Hundreds of dams have been constructed since the 1930s as well as a plethora of reservoirs, irrigation canals, and other water management structures. These developments were part of the Soviet hydropower mission, a modernisation plan that made the conquest of nature an ideological imperative. By taming the wild Syr Darya and Amu Darya Rivers, it was thought, agricultural output could be greatly increased.
Indeed, Moscow succeeded (with massive help from displaced ethnicities imprisoned in Uzbekistan) and created the "Cotton Belt" - but the consequences of this policy can literally be seen from space. The Aral Sea is on the verge of disappearing.

(Courtesy of the United Nations Environment Programme)

Kraak sees an economic solution
According to economic analysis conducted by the World Bank, a win-win solution is actually possible without the expensive construction of more dams: recognising the economic value of water allows for the optimisation of existing dam operations. Kyrgyzstan could discharge water for Uzbek irrigation in summer, in exchange for nominal payments to cover the costs of an alternative electricity supply in winter.
However, even Kraak recognizes that such a pragmatic solution would be difficult to achieve when you have domestic interests ("hydroelectric elites") that are determined to maximize its own gains via the construction of the dams.

In addition, Kraak notes that rumors suggest a Russian hand in the hydroelectricity development in Kyrgyzstan. Apparently Moscow provided large loans to Bishkek in 2009 to jump start the dam construction and many interpreted this as the Kremlin's attempt to dislodge the US from Manas airbase in Kyrgyzstan.

While I disagree with the implicit assertion that Moscow seeks a solid political hegemony in the region, Russia's vested interest in Kyrgyzstan (directly tied to its own national security) does make it difficult for the regional parties to come to a compromise.

Water sharing is a difficult issue to resolve and it's unclear if there really is a win-win solution. If hostilities over resources manifest in violence, the ramifications of such an event in an unstable and volatile region like Central Asia will be catastrophic. For Washington, attempting to bring stability to the region, poverty in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan acts as an obstacle that hinders statecraft and reconstruction of Afghanistan. This reflects one example of how scarcity and competition over natural resources can spill over into other vital areas of interest.

This much is clear: the increasingly self-evident nexus between energy production and food acquisition (or other agricultural products; like cotton) will be a pivotal facet of international development from now on and it will haunt both the developed and developing world. In short, scarcity in the periphery is not just the problem of the periphery alone, it's everybody's problem.

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